The last two reports on jobless claims from the Maine Department of Labor have painted a misleading picture of the state’s true unemployment rate.

Although the department was aware that its reporting provided the state’s media with information misrepresenting the number of people filing jobless claims, it didn’t fix the error until questioned by a Portland Press Herald reporter.

In its defense, the department said it has been dealing with the implementation of a new federal benefits expansion that has made it more difficult to reconcile the number of claims reported under federally mandated disclosure rules with the actual number of people who have filed unemployment claims.

It said it doesn’t simply report the number of people who have filed claims because federal disclosure rules require that claims be counted, not people. But the growing discrepancy in reporting has made Maine’s dire unemployment crisis appear even worse than it is.

Under normal circumstances, weekly initial unemployment claims from the state are an imperfect but reliable barometer for the scale of layoffs and job losses. Claims data, which all states are required by federal law to report, are among the key indicators of a state’s economic health.

But a federal jobless benefits program implemented May 1 in Maine for contract, self-employed and other workers not usually eligible for unemployment benefits has made that data misleading by artificially inflating the numbers.

“It is not reliable right now as far as counting how many people are applying,” Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Jessica Picard said in an interview.

According to the state’s recent jobless claims reports, a total of 156,900 unemployment claims have been filed in Maine since March 15. However, the Labor Department finally clarified after multiple rounds of questions from the Portland Press Herald that only 126,765 individual Mainers have filed jobless claims during that period, 22,000 of them through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

That’s the difference between a 22.6 percent unemployment rate and an 18.2 percent unemployment rate in Maine.

The winding road to a clearer understanding of the data discrepancy began when the Labor Department issued a jobless claims report Thursday that appeared to contradict the previous week’s report. The Press Herald contacted Picard in an attempt to get clarification before publishing a story. Her explanation contained no acknowledgment of the error, which the department failed to correct for an entire week.

As a result of the department’s error, all news outlets in Maine under-reported last Thursday the number of jobless claims filed for the week ending May 2 by more than 10,500 claims. The department reported last week that 16,063 claims had been filed, then a week later it revised the number to 26,600 claims.

But the revised figure is not accurate either and is higher than the actual number of people who filed claims.

When first asked about a disparity between Thursday’s report and the previous one, Picard said, “We do not currently have a way of saying how many people are claiming unemployment.”

But after the Press Herald published its initial story Thursday afternoon saying the state doesn’t know how many claimants have filed, Picard contacted a reporter to clarify the situation further. She indicated that the Labor Department has known all along the accurate number of out-of-work Mainers who have filed for jobless benefits since the coronavirus pandemic struck, but that it has not reported those numbers to the public because federal reporting requirements specify that claims must be counted, not people.

And with the duplicate claims data skewing the numbers, the federally mandated reporting method produces a distorted picture.

“We can tell how many people this (total claims number) represents, this number is just not part of the federal reporting data,” she said. “The claims data that we report follows federal guidelines and is how all states provide it.”

Picard said the state’s two most recent jobless claims reports don’t accurately reflect the number of people who filed claims because of complications related to the federal eligibility expansion. She said a single person could have multiple claims counted under their name because of the way the system is set up.

Picard explained that to qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, workers first have to be disqualified from traditional state unemployment benefits, which could result in two claims per worker. Those whose claims were denied when they filed in March or April may have had a new claim filed automatically by the department if they became eligible for the federal program earlier this month.

Picard then said department staff could provide the total number of individuals that have filed for unemployment benefits, which she had a staff member put together. She also said the discrepancy between claims and people would diminish after unemployed job-seekers settle into a regular pattern of filing under either the state or the federal benefits program.

The department on Thursday reported that roughly 21,000 initial unemployment claims were filed last week, including 11,500 claims filed through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

While the total number of recently laid off or furloughed residents in Maine is still unknown, the unemployment picture is dire. Nearly 87,000 Mainers continued to receive state unemployment benefits last week, which means they have not returned to working regular hours.

Nationwide, almost 3 million Americans filed new jobless claims last week, bringing the total number of unemployed U.S. job-seekers to roughly 36 million. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the estimated U.S. unemployment rate last week was nearly 15 percent, the highest since the Great Depression.

The Labor Department has been under fire for weeks, accused by some of poorly handling the explosion of calls and emails from distraught residents who have recently lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic and state-imposed economic restrictions intended to contain the spread of the disease.

It has taken a number of steps to accommodate the dramatic increase in claims, such as adding more than 200 additional workers to answer calls, expanding the hours claimants can call, and working over the weekends to process claims.

Since March 15, the department has paid out over $400 million in unemployment benefits, it said.

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