Maine House speaker proposes overhaul of unemployment system

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Eric Russell, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·4 min read
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Mar. 23—Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau has drafted legislation that would overhaul and modernize the state's unemployment system, which showed signs of problems even before the pandemic led to an unprecedented wave of claims.

The bill is still being drafted, but Fecteau, a Democrat from Biddeford, said at a virtual news conference Tuesday it's designed to make it easier for laid-off workers to access benefits. It also would provide increased benefits to those with dependent children for the first time in 20 years, and would increase the eligibility and benefit amount for those who are partially unemployed.

Further, Fecteau's bill would create an Unemployment Navigator program to assist those filing claims, would require employers to file claims for employees subject to a mass layoff and would penalize employers that discourage workers from applying for unemployment.

"Unfortunately for struggling workers who bore the brunt, the unemployment system in Maine let people down when they needed it most," he said, referring to long wait times and poor communication when the pandemic forced thousands into unemployment. "Maine should not settle for a mediocre system. We can address this by fixing it, before we ever have a crisis again."

Fecteau's legislation drew from input collected during a survey in January by Maine AFL-CIO, Maine Equal Justice and others, that asked people to describe their experiences applying for unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

More than 300 people responded, and their responses formed the basis of a report by Sandra Butler, a professor of social work at the University of Maine. Among the highlights of Butler's report were:

— Nearly 40 percent of claimants who responded said they had to wait more than 30 days for their unemployment insurance payment.

— A little more than half of respondents said they did not receive information from their employer that they might be eligible for benefits, which violates state law that says employers must give workers a printed notice of how to claim unemployment benefits when they become unemployed.

— Many reported that unemployment benefits, which provide an additional payment of $10 per dependent child, fail to meet the needs of families with children. The average weekly benefit is roughly $325.

— About 40 percent of respondents were unaware that workers whose hours were reduced could still receive partial benefits. Another 9.3 percent indicated that their employer told them they were not eligible.

— The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program filled gaps for workers who left their jobs for family reasons and were not eligible for traditional unemployment. One-quarter of respondents who were disqualified for leaving a job did so under challenging family circumstances.

"The COVID-19 health crisis didn't create the problems ... but it has served to expose them," Butler said.

Maine's unemployment rate, which had been historically low prior to the pandemic, peaked at 9.1 percent last April, according to the Department of Labor. That has come down steadily since, but the most recent rate — 5.2 percent in January — is still well above the below 3-percent rate the state saw throughout 2019.

As for unemployment insurance claims, initial claims peaked above 30,000 for the first week of April 2020, then decreased steadily through the summer and fall before rising again through late January. The most recent four-week average of initial claims is just over 1,800. The weekly average of continued claims is about 16,300, down from a high of 120,000 per week in late May.

"Over the past year, I have become intimately familiar with countless struggling Mainers in my work as a volunteer moderator in the Maine AFL-CIO's Unemployment Assistance Group," Suzy Young of Winterport said at Tuesday's news conference. "When federal enhanced benefits ran out, there were people in our group who lost their homes, were evicted from their apartments and forced to sell their belongings. Some even resorted to selling plasma to survive."

Many of the findings of the survey echoed problems with the system that were raised by a whistleblower in early 2018, which led to a preliminary investigation by the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. But that probe did not result in any changes in the system.

Fecteau said he believes much of blame lies with an international company, Tata Consulting Services or TCS, that was hired by the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage to create a new $90 million system four years ago.

"I believe they developed a faulty product," Fecteau said. "For the average Mainer, you're interacting with a system that's speaking a foreign language."

As the bill is still being drafted, Fecteau said he did not have an estimate on the cost, although it would likely be substantial. The speaker also said the Department of Labor is working on its own bill to reform the unemployment system that shares some of his goals.

"I think they are as committed to solving some of the challenges as we are and as the public is," Fecteau said.