AUGUSTA — State legislators on Tuesday continued to cite concerns with the state’s new unemployment filing system and how it confounds Mainers trying to file claims for benefits.

At a hearing on updating unemployment laws, which were tabled again, as they had been earlier this month, members of the state’s Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development once again addressed the entire unemployment filing system, but no one from the Department of Labor or the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation was at the hearing to answer the questions from committee members.

Since the system was launched in December, House and Senate Democrats have reported numerous constituents calling to say they weren’t receiving their benefits. Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said her office continues to get calls on a near daily basis.

Bellows said she would like John Feeney, the director of the BUC, to come back before the committee to answer questions. Feeney and Dale Smith, the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, appeared before the committee Feb. 9, when legislators expressed a litany of concerns with the timing of the roll-out and the functionality of the system.

“Some people are just giving up,” Bellows said.

The system was spearheaded by Mississippi in what eventually became the four-state consortium known as ReEmployUSA, a cloud-based filing system that Maine is a part of, along with Rhode Island and Connecticut.

A persistent complaint in Maine has been the inability of claimants actually to reach someone by phone. State representatives have reported many cases of constituents trying unsuccessfully to file online — often getting locked out of their accounts or told their password was incorrect — and then trying to call the department’s help line multiple times throughout the day. People have said they have been put on hold for hours or that they have just been disconnected. Bellows said that now legislators are hearing claimants aren’t even able to leave a voice mail with the BUC.

At the Feb. 9 hearing, Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, had tried to include an amendment to allow claimants to file for benefits over the phone. Under the new system, claimants must complete their work search history after logging in to the website, which is where the lion’s share of the problems have originated. Members of the panel previously expressed concerns for older Maine residents or those living in rural areas who don’t have access to a computer or a reliable internet connection.

Bellows said they wanted to require the labor department to offer claimants the option to file their work search history over the phone or in written form. She expressed concern that the department was out of compliance with federal law by forcing claimants to file online. According to Henry Fouts, a policy analyst for the committee, based on the latest guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, the states are required to offer alternative methods of filing for their claims.

“I’m concerned that opens the state up to liability,” Bellows said.

Bellows reiterated her past concerns that with spring coming, roads will be posted and timber workers will be out of work, putting further strain on the already burdened system with more seasonal workers needing to file for their benefits.

“I hope they’re trying to make changes,” she said of the labor department. “I’m really concerned.”

At the Feb. 9 hearing, Feeney said the system’s launch was timed to accommodate another new system going into place in August, one designed for employers who contribute their required share to the unemployment insurance system.

Bellows asked Peter Gore, vice president of government relations for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, if the department had informed businesses of the new system and the challenges it was creating on the claimant side. Gore said he didn’t think that had happened. He said he did not know if employers experienced any technical difficulties with the existing system.

“I recommend the department reach out to employers,” Bellows said, adding she hoped the department would delay a roll-out if they anticipated any problems similar to the claimant filing system.

Gore was present to address changes in the law that would affect employers responsible for an out-of-work claimants benefits. Under the current system, if an employee is laid off after working less than five weeks for an employer, the responsibility of paying a claim shifts to the most recent employer of more than five weeks. Gore said the bill would change this so all employers within a given time frame would share responsibility for paying benefits fairly.

“From the standpoint of the chamber we’re OK with that,” Gore said, adding that it would create a more fair distribution of benefits.

Those changes do not go into effect until 2020, per the bill, to allow for programming changes. In the meantime, the state would continue using the existing system.

Fecteau expressed concerns about that. He said it puts policymakers in a difficult position of either having to waste money changing the system or making a decision on public policy not in place.

“It’s quite problematic,” he said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

 

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