Maine has joined more than 30 states approved for a limited federal boost to unemployment benefits, but more than a thousand Mainers are not eligible to receive the extra money and it is unclear when the payments will start or how long the aid will last.

In the meantime, struggling Mainers have turned to state assistance to make ends meet after enhanced unemployment benefits expired at the end of July. In the first week of August, applications for food assistance increased by 40 percent and requests for temporary financial aid tripled.

More than 70,000 Mainers filed for continuing jobless benefits in the second week of August. The state had an unemployment rate of about 10 percent in July.

The Maine Department of Labor on Wednesday received approval for a grant that will add $300 per week in benefits for many unemployed workers. The Lost Wages Assistance program was authorized by President Trump in early August. A $44 billion disaster relief fund will pay for the benefit. The program expires at the end of December, but the money may last only a few weeks.

The program is intended to partially replace a $600-per-week unemployment benefits enhancement passed by Congress in March that lapsed last month. Negotiations on a new stimulus package that could provide a sustainable unemployment insurance boost broke down in early August.

While the state’s grant has been approved, there is no firm timeline for Maine to pay out the enhanced benefits. State officials said it will take up to three weeks to implement a new system to administer the funding, which flows from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


“These are not unemployment funds, and so how they are incorporated into existing benefits must be programmed,” Department of Labor spokeswoman Jessica Picard said. “Because each state’s unemployment system is slightly different, how it is implemented in each state may vary.”

Program restrictions will prevent some laid-off Mainers from accessing the added benefits. About 1,200 people will be excluded from the program because they receive less than $100 per week, the cutoff to access added benefits under FEMA rules.

The program also is only open to those who are unemployed, or only partially employed, as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. It is unclear how many people collecting unemployment that rule would exclude, Picard said.

When weekly benefits are finally implemented, it will be less than initially proposed and may not last long. When the president unveiled the package, it was meant to give jobless Americans an extra $400 per week. But that payment depended on states kicking in 25 percent, or $100 a week, per claimant.

Maine and most other states have declined to provide that added assistance, which means the benefit for Mainers will be only half of what they received from federal benefits through the end of July.

“The optional additional $100 cannot be paid for through existing unemployment funds, and would have had to be paid through a completely different funding source, such as the state’s general fund,” Picard said. “If Maine had chosen this option, it would have cost the state about $8 million a week.”


The state will receive three weeks of funding up front – about $73.5 million – and will have to request more aid weekly after that. But that funding likely will be exhausted as soon as Maine implements the program, because the added benefits will be paid retroactively back to Aug. 1.

It is likely the program’s funding will only provide enhanced benefits for a total of five weeks, Picard said.

In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, a relief package that included $600 per week extra for unemployed workers. That aid was credited with keeping families out of poverty and injecting money into the economy at the peak of the pandemic-triggered economic crisis this spring.

Without that aid, an increasing number of Mainers appear to have turned to state food assistance and financial aid programs, an indication that poverty is increasing.

Demand for public food assistance and financial aid spiked immediately following the expiration of federal unemployment benefits, according to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Applications for supplemental food assistance increased by 40 percent in the first week of August, and applications for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash to pay for essential needs, tripled, the department said.


“Our analysis indicates that the expiration of the additional unemployment benefit was a significant factor in these increases,” DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said.

In the first full week of August, the most recent week for which data are available, the state received more than 1,100 applications for supplemental food assistance and 178 TANF applications, the highest number since mid-May. The Office of Family Independence, which manages the programs, received 11,420 calls in early August, the highest weekly call volume since mid-April.

The office “continued to receive a high volume of applications for all programs through the first three weeks of August,” Farwell said. “Call volume is also high, reflecting those interested in applying, as well as current participants seeking to retain benefits.”

The number of people on state assistance programs was at its lowest point in months at the beginning of August, according to the most recent data.

The sudden increase in demand for state services is beyond what Maine typically sees as summer businesses wind down in August, Farwell said.

“Generally, income ends for many seasonal workers in August, prompting an increase in applications, but the increases we’re now observing exceed this typical rise and are likely related to the ending of the additional unemployment benefit,” she said.

Demand for rent relief has spiked, too. MaineHousing has received more than 3,800 applications for rental aid since the beginning of August, three times the number of applications filed in July.

It is likely the loss of enhanced unemployment benefits led to more people filing for rental assistance, but it is difficult to determine to what degree, MaineHousing spokeswoman Cara Courchesne said. Those applications were for an expanded $5 million housing assistance program implemented in late July that provides up to $1,000 per month for three months. It replaced an earlier assistance program approved in April that provided a one-time payment of $500.

“The data for the current iteration of the program is a very mixed bag of people who have been needing help all along, versus people who are now facing significant issues as a result of loss of the federal unemployment benefits,” Courchesne said.

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