For the past three months, my coworkers and I who work as eligibility specialists for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services have been processing applications from Mainers struggling through the COVID-19 outbreak. Scores of Mainers and their families are making ends meet with help from public assistance programs like SNAP, MaineCare and TANF. About 300 eligibility specialists statewide process these applications with the highest level of accountability to taxpayers.

This work is being done in a rapidly changing environment. I’ve been working in MaineCare for 10 years, including six and a half as an eligibility specialist. One bright spot this year is that, while the number of applications for assistance is up, it isn’t nearly reaching the level from the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

During that recession, however, Mainers seemed confident the economy would get better some day, even as they applied for assistance. These days, we’re hearing from more and more people alarmed about their future. They’re worried about how long the outbreak will last and how long it will be until the economy recovers.

As a public servant, union member, spouse and mother of two, it’s encouraging to see the state of Maine respond to the joint health and economic crises caused by COVID-19 by making several assistance programs more accessible:

● My coworkers and I apply a streamlined application process for SNAP, the Maine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Some SNAP applications now get processed the same day. Result: In April, Mainers received over $30 million in SNAP benefits.

● We implemented changes to the MaineCare expansion application process. Result: As of June 1, 2020, a total of 55,353 Mainers are enrolled in MaineCare expansion, including many parents and caretakers.

● With changes to the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Program, my coworkers and I processed new applications that peaked at 262 a week in April compared to a weekly average of 150 before the pandemic. Result: About 10,000 Mainers are getting assistance through TANF.

Elsewhere, my colleagues who work for the Maine Department of Labor have been processing a record number of unemployment insurance claims as they also root out scores of fraudulent claims. It’s crucial work by a department that, like Maine DHHS, was underfunded and understaffed for years. Maine’s public health nursing program remains grossly understaffed. Municipal services also are being stretched thin, with municipalities like Augusta laying off workers due to the pandemic.

While the recent changes to Maine’s public assistance programs are helpful for struggling Mainers, they’re simply not enough to get everyone back on their feet and to prevent the economy from worsening. Maine and every other state in our nation can’t go it alone. The U.S. Senate needs to step up for families in Maine and throughout our nation by funding state and local services threatened by the pandemic’s economic fallout.

The state of Maine is expected to experience revenue losses of $1.2 billion for the upcoming fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy. Such losses could put the jobs of state and municipal workers at risk. The Senate must pass the Heroes Act, which would invest $1 trillion in aid for state and local governments and protect the health and safety of workers throughout our nation.

With over 44 million Americans filing for unemployment, the Senate must provide direct funding for state and local governments so they can keep services going for workers and their families and to prevent further economic harm. In recent months, Congress passed new tax breaks for the wealthy and bailouts for corporations, but hasn’t provided direct financial help to states and municipalities.

The Heroes Act would fund personal protective equipment for workers throughout our nation. There’s an urgent need for PPE for Maine workers. Members of my union recently ordered, through Maine businesses, 1,500 bottles of hand sanitizer and 1,000 masks for essential workers statewide. My sons, William, 14, and Pax, 3, joined me in distributing boxes of this equipment to essential workers across the state. For some workers, this was the only PPE they had received.

There’s no time to wait. Please join me in demanding Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King pass the Heroes Act immediately to help Mainers and everyone else in our great nation get through this pandemic.

Allison Perkins of Cornville is vice president of the Maine Service Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union. She works as an eligibility specialist for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in Skowhegan.


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