More Mainers applied for unemployment in the first three days of this week than during the entire month of February, a surge in claims that state officials expect to accelerate as the economic fallout of the coronavirus sets in.

About 4,900 Mainers filed unemployment claims with the state Department of Labor between Sunday and Tuesday, spokeswoman Jessica Picard said. The spike in claims is almost double those filed last March, according to state data.

The unprecedented number of people suddenly thrown out of work is stressing parts of the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Because it depends on federal funding tied to the state’s unemployment rate, the labor department had only 14 claims experts to troubleshoot problems going into the crisis, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said.

“When our unemployment insurance rate was 3 percent, the funding we had available for staffing was minimal,” Fortman said. “We receive about $10 million less a year than we did 10 years ago.”

The supplemental budget lawmakers passed Tuesday contains money to help, and staff from the state’s Career Centers have been enlisted to help answer basic unemployment questions, Fortman said.


That means that while people can still call the department, applying online is the best choice. Maine’s online platform has been stable so far, unlike in some states where sites have crashed because of the large number of people trying to access benefits.

If people have complicated claims, the online system may pose issues, but Fortman said most people have smooth experiences.

“Hopefully, the vast majority of people will be able to file online and will not have problems,” she said.


Lawmakers passed an emergency law Tuesday that extends unemployment benefits for people impacted by coronavirus. That includes benefits for displaced employees who intend to return to the same company and are not required to search for jobs, and waiving a weeklong waiting period to be eligible for benefits.

After people are deemed eligible, they still will need to wait 10 days to two weeks to start receiving benefits.


It is impossible to know what the future will bring, but based on what’s happening around the country, Fortman expects an avalanche of claims.

“Based on the experience of other states, we will see incredibly large claim volumes in the next couple of weeks,” she said.

Everyday economic activity across the globe has ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment claims have soared across the United States as more and more businesses are disrupted.

The New York state unemployment site was slammed Tuesday by abruptly laid-off workers, The New York Times reported. In Massachusetts, 20,000 people filed for benefits on Monday alone, more than in the entire month of February, The Boston Globe said.

The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that represents parts of the tourism industry, estimated losing 4.6 million travel-related jobs.

The depth and scale of job losses have prompted ambitious policy proposals, such as a plan from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to provide small businesses with forgivable loans to meet payroll. Maine’s other U.S. senator, independent Angus King, signed onto a Democratic proposal to immediately give American adults $2,000 cash and continue cash payments as the crisis continues. The Trump administration is considering a cash payment proposal of its own.


Many Maine businesses began closing their doors or restricting services this week as the number of positive cases rose and other states took aggressive measures to limit the spread of the virus by urging people to stay near their homes and away from other people.

On Wednesday, the number of positive cases in Maine grew to 42, and Gov. Janet Mills ordered bars and restaurants to close by the end of the day. She also encouraged many other public-facing businesses, such as hair salons, gyms, theaters and shopping malls, to shut down at least until the end of the month.

Southern Maine’s food and beverage industry has been hit especially hard, with many servers and kitchen staff displaced from work as establishments in Portland’s nationally celebrated restaurant scene pivot to takeout and delivery only.

Food service and drinking establishments employed 17,000 people in the Portland-South Portland metro area, 8 percent of workers and about the same proportion statewide, according to the most recent data from the Maine Department of Labor.

Big Tree Hospitality, the company that owns Eventide, Hugo’s and the Honey Paw restaurants in Portland, an oyster shop in Boston and a commissary kitchen in Biddeford, has laid off most of its 180 employees, co-owner Mike Wiley said.

“I think in the absence of any kind of information or precedent, we have advised them to avail themselves of unemployment,” he said. “We want to offer them jobs when this blows over, but in the face of total uncertainty it is hard to make any promise or speak with any degree of certainty.”


The company has kept its salaried managers and will serve takeout and delivery food for the time being, Wiley said. He has no idea how long it will last.

“We’re just trying to generate anything approaching revenue at this point,” he said.


The jump in unemployment claims puts the state on track to surpass the highest weekly claim total in almost 20 years. In the first week of January 2009, during the depth of the Great Recession, 5,634 people filed for unemployment in Maine.

Maine’s unemployment rate in January this year was 3.1 percent and the state had gone 48 months with unemployment below 4 percent. In February, an average of 770 workers a week filed for unemployment.

Until a few days ago, Colleen Graves, 61, had worked as photographer in Portland hospitals, taking baby pictures on commission. She was laid off along with other nonessential employees as the hospitals geared up for COVID-19 patients.


Filing for her first-ever unemployment claim was jarring, and her status as an employee paid only on commission complicated the online claim application process.

The system kept giving her confusing error messages and obstructing her attempts to move forward, Graves said. When she called the Department of Labor for help, she kept getting routed to an unhelpful option menu, then disconnected.

She started the application process Tuesday morning and, with a few breaks in between, finished around 2 p.m.

“I work with an online platform all the time. I know about being persistent and trying to troubleshoot on your own,” she said. “It was really not an easy process. I think a lot of people would be discouraged.”

Graves held onto the job mostly to help her daughter and her husband with child care costs. It will hurt to lose it, but she worries about many Mainers who don’t have a security net to fall back on.

“This is going to affect people,” she said, “even people who have been middle class and secure are suddenly going to be finding themselves in places they never expected to be.”

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