In 2017, I served as House chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. Then, the Maine Department of Labor informed us of plans to roll out a new unemployment insurance system designed by TCS, a multinational IT company headquartered in India. The system was designed in partnership with Mississippi, Rhode Island and Connecticut. It was developed with a $90 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s hard to believe a system fraught with so many issues costs $90 million, but here we are.

Before the rollout, employees at the Maine Labor Department and the state’s Office of Information Technology expressed concerns about the system’s readiness. The LePage administration moved forward anyway, and the result was painful. Even with low unemployment rates at the time, those trying to file for benefits faced locked accounts, unprocessed benefits, a mind-numbing user interface and long phone waits. In a real twist, some claimants received double payments.

Complaints streamed into legislative offices. I heard from Maine Labor Department employees who shared concerns about the UI system, especially since it launched during peak claim season. An employee claimed in a memo that high-ranking Maine Labor Department officials, including then-Director John Feeney, destroyed complaints. As reported by the Morning Sentinel’s Emily Higginbotham in the Press Herald on March 23, 2018: “The memo claimed that Feeney oversaw a cover-up of system problems, with documented records of complaints ordered destroyed and some 1,000 voicemail messages unreturned.”

I requested the Government Oversight Committee investigate the UI system. The request was approved in March 2018 by an 8-2 vote, only then-Republican Reps. Paula Sutton and Jeffrey Pierce opposed. Then the LePage administration left, Maine Labor Department leadership turned over and the system handled claims during the remainder of 2018 and 2019 without fanfare. As a result, legislative leaders were under the impression any issues with the system had been resolved.

COVID-19 has proven this impression to be wildly wrong. The UI system’s flaws have reappeared and, given the volume of people applying for benefits, more people have faced its unbearable challenges. They include locked accounts, overwhelmed customer service lines, the user-unfriendly interface, error messages, fact-finding interviews scheduled months out, fact-finding interviews that don’t occur as scheduled, claimants not rolled over to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, backdated claims not processed and more.

The latest challenge comes from fraudsters attacking UI systems nationally. The Maine Labor Department took the important steps to root out fraudulent claims but delayed processing of all benefits. Regular payments were due to process within 48 to 72 hours after the fraud investigation. Yet many constituents reported unprocessed claims more than a week later. With bills to be paid and families to support, the unpredictability and stress caused by this UI system are completely unacceptable.

The UI system’s role in this pandemic is equally important to our public health system. The Maine Labor Department and the UI system must ensure the financial well-being of Mainers who have lost jobs by no fault of their own. Many of the people affected work paycheck-to-paycheck. They don’t have savings to last months. Any delay in benefits puts these Mainers in a horrible bind. Lawmakers have been fielding their phone calls and emails from the outset. We hear the anxiety in the voices of our constituents, who just want to be able to pay their rent, purchase groceries and return to work when safe.

While I’m pleased that $802 million in UI benefits have been paid to Mainers who filed, far too many remain in limbo. I am frustrated with the far too many issues presented to us by this $90 million UI system since its launch. I firmly believe TCS developed a faulty product.

I remain steadfast in my commitment to ensuring that Mainers receive benefits. Continued pressure from lawmakers has resulted in a new process for constituent issue resolution. Weekly updates from Commissioner Laura Fortman to lawmakers have resumed. While these are steps forward, a substantial review of the UI system must be conducted to avoid such catastrophe in the future. Lawmakers need to consider moving away from retaining outside vendors like TCS, instead making the internal investment to produce the state’s electronic systems.

Mainers deserve better. We can do better.

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