Unemployed Mainers are now able to access extended jobless benefits under a federal program launched Wednesday by the Maine Department of Labor.

The program, known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, grants an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to people whose eligibility for normal weekly payments has run out. Normally, claimants cannot receive benefits for longer than 26 consecutive weeks, or six months.

The emergency compensation program is not to be confused with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, another federal program prompted by the coronavirus pandemic that affords each claimant an extra $600 a week while on unemployment.

The extension of benefits from six months to nine months was part of a federal unemployment expansion passed through the federal CARES Act in March, along with the additional $600 per week for unemployed workers and an eligibility expansion that allows out-of-work contractors and the self-employed to claim jobless benefits.

“The Maine Department of Labor has reached another milestone and implemented the last of the new federal unemployment programs,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a statement Wednesday. “However, there is still work to do, as we continue to take claims and pay benefits at extraordinary levels.”

The department paid out $882 million in unemployment benefits between March 15 and June 20 to tens of thousands of out-of-work Mainers. Given the timing of the state’s unemployment surge, most Mainers who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic would not need to take advantage of the extension until mid-September at the earliest.

People who have exhausted their initial run of benefits will have to file a new initial claim with the state’s unemployment office to continue receiving payments, the department said. The state shifted workers who already had exhausted benefits onto Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the benefit program for people ineligible for state unemployment, and those workers will be automatically enrolled in the newly enacted program.

About 2,000 workers will be moved over to extended benefits and more people who have used up their benefits can now claim unemployment, Department of Labor spokeswoman Jessica Picard said.

“There are also people who have exhausted benefits within the past year, but do not have a currently active claim, that are able to apply for (Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation) now that it is implemented,” she said.

Maine was experiencing a historic run of low unemployment before March, when business closures and stay-at-home orders forced tens of thousands out of work and onto unemployment assistance.

That means someone who has been out of work since mid-March may have used up as much as 16 weeks of benefits, still under the threshold to receive extended assistance.

Initial and continuing jobless claims have been trending downward in Maine since a peak in April, but tens of thousands of Mainers continue to receive jobless benefits. For the week ending June 20, roughly 64,400 continuing claims were filed for state benefits, and another 26,400 claims were filed for federal benefits, according to the department. Thousands of people file new claims for benefits every week.

Extended benefits likely will be critical to help out-of-work Mainers make ends meet as the state and country move into an uncertain recovery. Despite slight job gains in May, Maine’s projected unemployment rate stands at around 9 percent, but is closer to 18 percent after correcting for inaccurate survey data.

The state’s labor department has been harshly criticized by out-of-work Mainers and politicians for its handling of the unprecedented wave of unemployment that hit the state. For months, workers have complained that they had trouble filing a claim through the state’s online unemployment system and could not reach department staff by phone or email.

In briefings to lawmakers, Fortman has said that staffing is the biggest bottleneck to getting benefits to workers. The bureau started the pandemic with just 14 staff members to handle claims, and has since boosted that number to more than 100. It is in the process of hiring dozens more workers to handle phones and help with processing and paying benefits, adjudicate appeals and investigate fraudulent claims, among other functions.

Those who go back to work part time may continue receiving weekly benefits. As long as someone earns less than $5 over their weekly benefit amount, they remain eligible for partial benefits, the department said. If someone receives at least $1 in jobless aid, they are eligible for the additional $600 in weekly federal benefits.

That additional payment runs out on July 25.

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