Benefits paid to unemployed Maine workers surpassed $1 billion last week, as work search requirements are set to resume soon for those who have lost their jobs.

Roughly 2,800 Mainers filed new claims for unemployment benefits last week, and more than 87,000 total state and federal benefit claims were paid out, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Since March 15, the state has paid out $1.03 billion in unemployment aid, 14 times the amount unemployed residents received in all of 2019, the department reported Thursday.

The massive outpouring of benefits payments reflects the unprecedented scale of sudden joblessness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but is also inflated by an added $600-per-week federal benefit set to expire July 25.

The state’s unemployment trust fund, which pays out state benefits, dropped to $325 million in May, a 34 percent decline from February, according to the most recent data available. The federal government covers enhanced unemployment payments and benefits to workers who are typically ineligible.

In June, state Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa, the state’s chief financial officer, said Maine will need to use $270 million of its $1.25 billion in federal pandemic funding to back-fill the trust fund to keep it solvent and stave off sharp increases in the rates employers pay into the fund for their workers.

Mainers who have lost their jobs will soon have to look for work to keep receiving benefits. Searching for work is a standard requirement for jobless assistance, but people receiving benefits have been exempt since March because stay-at-home orders and forced business closures made looking for work unrealistic.

People who have lost their jobs permanently will have to begin logging their work search activities starting July 18, and will need to include those activities in their weekly claims going forward, according to the Labor Department.

Workers who expect to go back to their previous employer do not need to search for work until Sept. 5. That date was pushed back a month when Gov. Janet Mills extended the state of civil emergency in Maine this week.

It is unclear how many unemployed workers will have to start their work search in two weeks. The Maine Department of Labor could not provide a number or percentage of Mainers on unemployment benefits who have lost their jobs permanently versus those who expect to return to their previous employment.

Once the work search waiver ends, “claimants will need to report in their weekly certifications to either the employers they have sought work from, or, if they are still connected to their employer and so don’t need to search for work, the employer to which they will be returning,” said department spokeswoman Jessica Picard.

“The department will be conducting random audits to determine the accuracy of the statements,” she added.

Maine’s unemployment rate was 9 percent in May, although state labor economists suggest it could be twice that after correcting for errors in survey collection.

Nationally, more than 1.3 million initial unemployment claims were filed last week, a historically high pace that shows that many employers are still laying people off in the face of a resurgent coronavirus.

Pressure is building in some corners for Congress and the Trump administration to renew the $600-per-month enhanced benefit to help those out of work.

The U.S. House of Representatives in May passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which would extend the increased weekly benefit through the beginning of 2021. The Senate has yet to act on the bill or come up with its own relief package.

In a letter issued Thursday, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and more than 100 members of Congress urged President Trump to extend unemployment benefits. Working Americans are trying to keep themselves and their families safe during the worsening pandemic, not avoid work, the representatives said. The country’s economy is still in a crisis, permanent job losses are accelerating and unemployment is far higher than pre-coronavirus levels, they said.

“Cutting off enhanced unemployment benefits while the economy is still in crisis would ignore millions of Americans who are still suffering,” they said.

Throughout the process of handling a historic number of jobless Mainers, the state’s Department of Labor has also tried to weed out widespread, organized fraud in the system.

Since late May, tens of thousands of false unemployment claims have been filed, allegedly using stolen personal information. State and federal authorities suspect organized criminal groups exploited vulnerabilities in the system when wage verification and other vetting procedures were relaxed to get benefits out to unemployed workers quickly.

The Labor Department canceled 400 initial weekly claims and 2,400 continuing unemployment claims last week, it reported. Since the end of May, at least 25,000 initial claims and 46,400 continuing claims have been canceled for being fraudulent, it said.

The amount of money the state may have lost to fraud and how much it has recovered are still under investigation, and to date no criminal charges have been filed in connection with the fraud, Picard said.

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