Morgan Osnoe made hundreds of calls daily and waited on hold for hours, trying to get unemployment benefits.

MORGAN OSNOE: ‘I don’t know how much longer I can wait’

Morgan Osnoe was out on maternity leave when the pandemic hit. She couldn’t return to work as a CNA in a nursing home, because she needed to home-school her kindergartner and care for her infant.

Her husband has been working as a mechanic throughout the pandemic, but business has been slow because of the governor’s stay-home order. The Glenburn couple have always relied on both incomes to make ends meet.

“I have yet to receive 10 weeks of unemployment,” Osnoe said in mid-June. “I’m still waiting.”

Osnoe, 27, waited about six weeks after filing her initial application before calling the Department of Labor. Most days she would dial and “just pray” that she would get through on the department’s 800 line, so she could speak to someone. The few times she made it through, she waited on hold for four to six hours.

Osnoe said her claim has shown a payment date of the year 9999, which means her claim was flagged as potential fraud. But she was also told that her base period wages, which determine her eligibility, were inadvertently deleted, which could also be holding up her claim.

Osnoe said the claims representatives she has spoken to have been unreliable and in a few cases rude. One representative promised to call her back the next day and never did. Another promised that her money would be there the next day and it wasn’t. And someone from the Lewiston Career Center told her “to get up and get a job,” she said.

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder to afford the payments on the house and cars.

She and her husband had to replace a hot water tank and a waterline before the pandemic hit, so they don’t have much savings. She is getting help from her local legislator, but she was still waiting for benefits. She’s been maxing out credit cards to make ends meet.

“It’s literally: Choose what you want to pay and make sure there’s food in the house,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I can wait before things start getting taken. That’s the hard part.”

A month after being interviewed for this story, Osnoe said she was told she would not receive any unemployment pay. Her vehicle was repossessed last Tuesday.

 

Heather Mills, 41, initially received unemployment soon after the pandemic, but her benefits were suspended when the massive fraud hit. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

HEATHER MILLS: ‘Little did I know what was going to happen’

Heather Mills was laid off from her job as a pet food merchandiser for a store when the pandemic hit.

Her initial unemployment application went through without a hitch. She received her benefit card within a week, and it had money on it.

“Little did I know what was going to happen,” said Mills, 41, of Biddeford. “Everything felt too smooth.”

Mills stopped receiving benefits after Memorial Day weekend. She had no idea why, because she never received any formal communication from the state. She began hearing chatter about a pause in benefits because of widespread fraud.

She didn’t worry too much, though. On the evening news, she saw the state’s labor commissioner, Laura Fortman, saying that all benefits were paused for 48 hours while potential fraud was being investigated.

Two days came and went, and her benefits failed to arrive. She called the unemployment office, and an automated voice told her to try again. So she did – 72 times – and still couldn’t get anyone.

She learned that she could get into the waiting line by calling an administrative number. After spending over an hour on hold, she spoke to a representative, who blamed a computer glitch. The representative didn’t mention fraud until Mills raised it.

Mills said she confirmed her identity over the phone. But the payments didn’t resume. She started sending emails to state and federal officials, but no one could help.

She didn’t know that she had to email the state copies of her driver’s license, Social Security card, passport or other personal documents until she saw a post on Facebook.

She sent the documents reluctantly, but still her benefits didn’t come, so she began calling the department again. She said one claims representative questioned whether she really needed the benefits.

It took her three weeks to get her benefits reinstated. The whole experience – the lack of communication, the rude representatives, the false promises – caused her to question the state’s motives.

“There’s something strange that we’re not getting told,” she said. “It’s been dishonesty. It’s been a different story all the time from the Department of Labor. I just wish they would tell us what it really is.”

 

LISA THIBEAU: ‘They don’t hold up their end of the bargain’

Lisa Thibeau closed her hair salon in March, when the state ordered nonessential businesses to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The salon, which she’s operated in her Gardiner home for more than 30 years, has long been her primary source of income. But she’s also worked a part-time job at a local grocery store to get out of the house.

When her salon closed, Thibeau picked up a few extra hours at the grocery store. But now it appears those few extra hours are holding up approval of her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claim, which is for the self-employed and others not eligible for regular unemployment.

After spending hours on the phone trying to sort out her claim, Thibeau said she’s still not sure she will receive any benefits for the six to seven weeks of income she lost by closing her salon. She said one claims representative described it as “a funky case” that the system was not set up to handle.

“I feel like I’m being penalized for working at a store,” said Thibeau, 56. “I was under the impression that if you were self-employed and they shut you down you would get unemployment benefits, but I never did.”

She added: “So basically I lost six to seven weeks of my livelihood.”

Most hair salons were allowed to reopen May 1, but business has been slow to return. “My older clients are scared to come back,” she said.

Her experience of getting different answers from different representatives has left her with the impression that the state “had no idea what they’re talking about.”

“We had to tap into our savings, which dwindled our savings down, because that was a huge wage that was in my family,” she said. “They shut you down and you do what they tell you to do, and then they don’t hold up their end of the bargain.”

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