Valerie Christine was furloughed from her job as a dog groomer in York when the pandemic ramped up in March.

With three young children to manage, remote learning in effect and no child care available, Christine couldn’t realistically return to work when her employer reopened in late spring. So she was let go permanently.

Months later, Christine still hasn’t found a job that can accommodate a schedule disrupted by inconsistent classroom schedules for her two school-aged sons and just a few days a week of day care for her younger child.

Ashley Whitman helps Bella, 3, put on her shoes. Whitman had her hours as a preschool teacher cut back and can’t find a job that fits her schedule as she cares for her three children due to COVID-19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Christine said her landlord has threatened eviction, she’s at risk of having her power cut off and is reaching the end of her unemployment benefits. She applies for jobs, but during phone interviews it seems like interest in hiring her goes away once she explains her circumstances, she said.

“It’s just been a snowball effect. It was one minuscule thing, and now we are in almost November and I still can’t get a job,” she said in late October. “We are barely making ends meet.”

Thousands of Mainers remain out of work months after businesses were allowed to reopen and the worst economic effects of the pandemic eased.

Maine’s employment picture looks better than it did four months ago, and employers are hiring for jobs in a variety of fields. But some people are struggling to rejoin the ranks of the employed, held back by a lack of affordable child care, difficulty navigating remote education for their children, or fears for their health in the midst of a worsening, deadly pandemic.

The number of workers collecting unemployment benefits in Maine is higher than at any point in at least 17 years, according to state records. As of last week, there were nearly 43,000 people continuing to file unemployment claims in Maine under state and federal programs, roughly one-third more than in March 2009, at the height of the Great Recession.

Bella, 3, climbs on her mother’s back as Ashley Whitman tries to coax her son, Blake, 7, out from under a table as he plays in the family’s home. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The state has recovered more than 50,000 jobs since April, which reflects more than half the jobs lost during mass layoffs and furloughs amid a statewide shutdown intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. In September, the state’s unemployment rate hovered around 6 percent, but state labor economists suggest the actual rate could be closer to 9 percent because of an unusually high number of people no longer counted in the labor force.

State unemployment benefits are dwindling for those who were laid off this spring, and federal programs intended to assist those out of work because of the pandemic are set to expire in late December.

“We need something to hold us all afloat,” Christine said.

She’s nearing the end of her allowable period for receiving unemployment benefits and said she frequently receives payments late or inconsistently.

“A lot of us are going to start sinking here real quick, and it is going to be bad,” Christine said. “I know for a fact I’m not the only parent going through this.”

JOBS OUT OF REACH

A majority of those collecting state unemployment aid in September – 55 percent – were women, according to demographic data from the Maine Department of Labor. More than a quarter of claimants were in the 25-to-34 age group, and another 20 percent were ages 35 to 44.

Tens of thousands of positions are listed on the state’s CareerCenter website, and hiring signs are evident in stores, restaurants and other establishments across the state.

Employers are hiring in industries as diverse as health care, manufacturing, hospitality and construction, and are looking for everything from part-time, entry-level positions to full-time, skilled careers, said Nate Burns, general manager of Maine Staffing Group, a statewide recruitment agency.

Considering the massive layoffs this spring, Burns expected plenty of demand for positions his agency is trying to fill. That hasn’t been the case.

Ashley Whitman takes out her son Blake’s homework before helping him with it. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Theoretically, there should be more bodies available to put in those positions,” Burns said. “Still, despite our best efforts with advertising and marketing, we don’t tend to get a lot of fresh new applicants into our pool.”

Child care constraints, demands of remote education and health concerns about contracting COVID-19 in the workplace are preventing people from fully engaging in the workforce again, Burns said.

“If you want a job and you have a situation at home that allows you to do that, solid child care or whatever it is, you can make that happen pretty easily,” Burns said.

There are more than 15,000 jobs available on Maine JobLink, the employment listings website maintained by the state.

“We see people who want to go back to work, but want to go back to work where they know it is safe,” said Dawn Mealey, deputy bureau director at the Labor Department, which oversees the state’s CareerCenters.

Employers have taken the pandemic seriously, are operating within Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and are more likely now to offer flexible work schedules or remote work, Mealey said.

The CareerCenters can help those workers still on the sidelines and feeling left behind, said Labor Department spokeswoman Jessica Picard.

“Employers are doing hybrid models, remote work, meeting people where they are at,” Picard said. “If we aren’t able to talk to those workers, we aren’t able to help connect them with what will help.”

Ashley Whitman with her children Bella 3, Blake 7, and Bryce 11 at their Winslow home on Nov. 5. Whitman had her hours as a preschool teacher cut back and can’t find a job that fits her schedule as she cares for her three children because of the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

JOBLESS AID NOT A FIX

Ashley Whitman technically still has a job as a substitute teacher for a day care center in Winslow. But she works so many fewer hours now than she used to that it doesn’t feel like it. Before the pandemic, Whitman, a single mother of three young children, could work three or four days a week at the day care center while going to school for a degree in early childhood education.

Now, in between working around her sons’ school – kids have in-person education twice a week on alternating schedules – her daughter’s day care and managing one of her sons’ special needs, she now works three days a month at most.

“I had a full-time job to go to when the schools opened up, but they didn’t open in the way I needed them (to), so I couldn’t take that position,” Whitman said.

She is down to her last $243 in unemployment payments and doesn’t know what happens after that.

Right now, some extra unemployment aid or another stimulus check would help, Whitman said. But what she really needs is some predictability or more child care options.

“We’re taking it day by day and making it work the best we can,” she said.

Child care and health concerns are the top issues raised by jobless Mainers that call into a hotline staffed by Maine Equal Justice Partners.

“There are still lots of reasons people can’t get back to work,” said Allison Weiss, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

The organization consistently hears from workers who really want to go back to a job but have been counseled by their doctor to isolate and protect themselves as much as possible because of the risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19.

For most people, state unemployment benefits are barely enough to get by – for some as low as $172 a week. That works out to about $4.30 an hour for a 40-hour workweek. Even the average weekly payment, $294 a week, breaks down to about $7.36 an hour – Maine’s minimum wage is $12 an hour.

“If people can find and take work, they would,” Weiss said. “They have every incentive to.”

Ernie Cochran, 68, at his home in Camden. Cochran, an unemployed retail worker, can’t return to work because of health conditions. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

FALLING OFF A CLIFF

An enhanced unemployment benefit, specifically a $600 weekly payment, was introduced by federal law in March, but it lapsed in July. A federal unemployment aid program for those who do not qualify for state benefits is set to expire at the end of December, as is another federal program that grants 13 extra weeks of benefits for those who still haven’t found a job after the initial, 26-week eligibility period for benefits expires.

About 14,400 claimants already were collecting benefits from that program as of late October after exhausting state aid. The state’s own extended benefits program, which offers an additional 13 weeks, is set to end this week. No new benefits are on the horizon, despite months of bargaining between the White House and congressional Democrats.

“A lot of people are falling off a tremendous financial cliff right now – those federal benefits are not coming through,” Weiss said. “We see the solution as making sure people have enough to eat, have a safe place to live, and helping them meet their basic needs to put them in a place where they can find a job and get back to work.”

The pandemic has laid bare systemic problems, such as a lack of access to early child care, that set working families back long before COVID-19 hit the country, said Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. Inaction by Congress, and particularly Senate Republicans, to pass another comprehensive aid package with relief to those hurting the most is inexcusable, but structural change is needed to get people back to work and keep families on their feet, Sprague said.

Ernie Cochran, 68, at his home in Camden. Ernie, an unemployed retail worker, can’t return to work because of health conditions. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We can’t just fix COVID-19 and hope this all goes away,” she said. “This is showing us we need to address comprehensive paid leave and consider child care a public good. The economy doesn’t work if child care doesn’t work – we can’t just go back to the way it was.”

Some older Mainers who have worked their entire lives are now on the sidelines, fearful of their health and safety as COVID-19 cases surge in the state. More than 5,400 people over age 60 were collecting state unemployment aid in September – 20 percent of all beneficiaries.

Ernie Cochran, 68, was furloughed from his job at a Rockland hardware store in April. When he was recalled to work three months later, his doctor strongly advised against it. Cochran has a chronic inflammatory lung disease, asthma and chronic bronchitis – catching COVID-19 could be deadly.

Quarantining at home and limiting his exposure to other people has been hard for Cochran, who has worked in retail since the 1970s.

“Some people wear masks, some don’t, some people think it is a big joke,” he said. “I’m scared to death of dying alone in a hospital somewhere. I’m trying to maintain my distance from people, and the only thing that allows me to do that is unemployment insurance.”

Cochran ran out of his 26 weeks of state unemployment aid and was put on extended federal jobless benefits. That ends in less than two months, and he doesn’t know what happens after that. He collects a Social Security payment but relied on earnings from his job to make ends meet. More money from the government would help, but mostly he just wants to get back to work.

“I sure don’t want the federal government to take care of me for the rest of my life,” Cochran said. “I want to supplement my income in a field where I can make a good wage doing what I do. I want to go back to work somewhere, but I want to go back into a situation where I feel comfortable and safe.”

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