More than 100,000 Mainers have filed for unemployment in the past five weeks as the state and nation experience historic levels of joblessness.

Just over 11,500 Mainers filed initial unemployment claims last week, the lowest weekly total since mid-March. Last week’s claims are still almost 20 times higher than the weekly total in early March, before the coronavirus pandemic threw the economy into a tailspin.

Roughly one in seven Maine workers has filed a new unemployment claim since the start of the pandemic, a total of 101,060 – about 14 percent of the state’s workforce. The food service, hospitality, recreation and entertainment industries have been hit particularly hard, with roughly a quarter of the workers in those industries out of a job.

Across the country, more than 4.4 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. The total number of people out of work now tops 26 million. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in the U.S. was 11 percent for the week ending April 11, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Based on the number of initial and continuing claims filed in Maine last week, the state reported a similar unemployment rate of about 11 percent.

The true jobless picture is likely more dire. Many workers who are not ordinarily eligible for unemployment benefits are covered under a new federal law, but Maine and other states have yet to implement a system for them to file so they are not represented in the current unemployment figures.

The Maine Department of Labor said it is developing software to allow newly eligible workers to file claims, but it has not provided a timeline for when the expansion will be implemented. Workers already collecting unemployment benefits now receive an extra $600 per week in federal compensation as part of the federal CARES Act, passed in late March.

Massachusetts and Vermont are among the few states that have launched systems for newly eligible workers to file for unemployment.

Other Maine workers are stuck waiting to hear back from unemployment bureau staff about their claims, or cannot file because they can’t reach the office by phone or do not have the means to file online.

The Department of Labor receives about 30,000 calls a day, said spokeswoman Jessica Picard. That is down from around 250,000 calls every morning before the department switched to an alphabetical call-in system three weeks ago, but still more than the staff can handle.

“Many of the reasons that people are calling are because they have filed their claim, and their claim is currently pending due to a variety of issues that require an unemployment specialist to take a closer look at,” Picard said.

The need to conduct fact-finding interviews for some applicants is another bottleneck holding up many claims. Interviews are scheduled when staff need to take a closer look or need more information about an initial claim.

Right now, those interviews are being scheduled out into upcoming months, Picard said.

“This is unacceptable, so we will be streamlining the process,” she said.

Those changes will resolve core issues holding up claims processing and get payments out to eligible workers, Picard added.

Maine is doing an above-average job of processing claims compared to the country as a whole, but the state and others started at a severe disadvantage, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project advocacy group.

“There is absolutely no state in the nation that is getting benefits out quickly now,” she said.

When the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic hit, Maine had just 14 experts to handle the avalanche of claims. Administrative funding for unemployment bureaus was tied to states’ jobless rates, so when Maine was experiencing a historic run of low unemployment, it had minimal resources.

In the weeks since, the department has brought on 100 more people to answer questions and process claims, and it has enlisted the state’s CareerCenters to field simple questions and conduct troubleshooting.

Almost 66,500 Mainers filed continuing claims for unemployment benefits last week, the highest number on record and more than twice the peak in early 2009 during the Great Recession, according to the department.

Workers have to file weekly unemployment claims to keep receiving benefits.

The number of initial and continuing claims do not line up for a number of reasons. Some workers may have found a new job, returned to work or were put back on the payroll by an employer that received a federal Paycheck Protection Program emergency loan.

“It is not clear the extent to which this is occurring, since this is a new program and we do not have a mechanism for measuring jobs saved by it,” Picard said.

Other people have not been able to file weekly claims because their case requires further investigation by department staff, she said. Applicants may have put in the wrong business name, or provided incorrect dates of employment, initiating an investigation to find out why wages weren’t reported, Picard said.

In other cases, initial claims data reflect filings from self-employed, contract and other ineligible workers. Those claims are currently being denied, so they do not show up in continuing weekly numbers, she said.

The department recommends that applicants prepare an employment history for the past 15 to 18 months and a paycheck or W-2 tax form showing their employer’s registered business name to make sure they have the correct information before applying.

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