Worrying gaps in a Maine Department of Labor program to help participating companies avoid layoffs have left some employers confused and frustrated, and some workers without benefits.

WorkShare, a program administered by the Labor Department, lets employers create an individual program to temporarily reduce employees’ hours instead of laying them off. In exchange, the workers are provided a partial weekly payment by the state, as if they were on unemployment benefits, to offset the loss of wages. The goal is to help companies retain skilled workers during a downturn and avoid the cost of hiring and training new ones when conditions improve.

The program appears to be tailor-made for the economic conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic. But multiple employers and workers who contacted the Portland Press Herald reported serious problems with WorkShare that they say have blunted the program’s intended benefits.

The Labor Department said it is short-staffed but working to smooth out problems in the program and deliver benefits to workers using it. WorkShare has been an underused program and, amid a surge of interest, some businesses and employees may unintentionally be using it incorrectly, department spokeswoman Jessica Picard said.

“We realize this is a new program for many employers, and employees may not be fully aware of their responsibilities under their plan, or the impact from deviating from the plan,” she said. “The department continues to work with these employers to resolve these types of issues.”

The department has been scrambling to staff up its unemployment office following an explosion of jobless claims precipitated by the pandemic. Many out-of-work Mainers have complained of problems filing their claims and said efforts to reach Labor Department staff by phone or email have been fruitless.

None of the businesses and employees that contacted the newspaper agreed to have their names published, with some citing fears about developing a negative reputation. But their stories are similar.

Many said they were unable to get in touch with staff at the Labor Department to ask questions and seek advice on how to navigate the WorkShare program. They reported calling and leaving emails for department contacts only to receive automated replies or no response at all.

One business provided text of an email reply from the department that said because it is training additional staff and resolving WorkShare payment issues, it would only check emails sporadically. The message directed them not to send multiple emails checking on the status of payments.

Aside from the frustration of not being able to promptly reach anyone at the department, businesses and employers also reported that weekly WorkShare payments have been delayed and sporadic.

One Lewiston business said some of its workers had not received payments for weeks, even though they filed weekly WorkShare certifications. In other cases, checks arrived on some weeks but not others. It said the company’s human resources director had tried to contact the Labor Department about the problem without success.

An employee of a health and wellness business in Gorham said she had not received a single payment from the state since her employer joined the WorkShare program in late May. She was working about 25 percent fewer hours, which were supposed to be partially offset by WorkShare payments.

Some benefit checks for staff at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce were held up because of suspected fraud, but the payments eventually were released, said President and CEO Quincy Hentzel. Other businesses have reported similar situations, she said.

The chamber was assigned two individuals at the department to manage their WorkShare account, Hentzel said.

“They have been pretty responsive,” she said. “For the most part, I have received an answer within 24 hours.”

Under WorkShare, employers can voluntarily reduce 10 percent to 50 percent of the hours for all regularly scheduled employees or those in a particular unit or shift. Those workers can receive a modified weekly unemployment insurance payment equal to the proportion of hours they lost. Each business designs its own WorkShare program in consultation with the Labor Department.

In normal times, that payment can be minimal, since the average weekly unemployment benefit is around $325. But since April, those on WorkShare also have been eligible for a $600 weekly benefit from the federal government authorized in the CARES Act, enacted in March.

The intent of WorkShare is to help workers make ends meet while their employer deals with an unanticipated disruption in business. The program was established in 2011 during the Great Recession.

Although promoted as a solution to prevent layoffs during the pandemic, few Maine employers have signed on to WorkShare, even though engagement in the program is at an all-time high. Before March 15, just three companies had employees on WorkShare, and $21,570 in benefits were paid out that month.

By May, more than 170 businesses and 2,000 workers had joined WorkShare, and the program had paid out more than $1.2 million in benefits, according to the Labor Department.

Picard, the Labor Department spokeswoman, said there is increased demand for the program, and staff had created the automatic email replies to let people know they would reply when they were able. She but did not answer directly when asked if there was a backlog for assistance and if so, how long it was taking to respond to inquiries. It can take up to two weeks to design and establish a WorkShare program, she said.

“Because the WorkShare program is a manual process where staff need to work with each employer one-on-one to create their tailored program, it takes time to get through all new requests,” Picard said. “New WorkShare plans are being set up and approved weekly.”

The department has boosted staff on the WorkShare program from two full-time workers in March to five now, and it intends to add more employees to the unit in mid-July, Picard said.

She could not explain why some payments have been delayed or sporadic, but said it may be because workers and employers submitted conflicting weekly paperwork.

“If any of the documentation does not match the agreed-upon plan, it creates a delay in order for staff to gather information to reconcile the mismatch,” Picard said.

The department would “examine ways to streamline the WorkShare program” after it implements changes to a federally sanctioned extension of jobless benefits for Mainers who have been out of work for at least six months, she added.

“With the increased interest and demand for the WorkShare program, the department is looking at pursuing grant funding in order to help enhance the process going forward to make it faster and smoother,” Picard said.

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