AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Labor began accepting applications for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program May 1. Applicants whose claims do not require further review should begin receiving benefits within seven days of filing, according to a press release from the department.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is a new federal program that expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to certain categories of workers not typically able to receive unemployment in the past. That includes the self-employed, farmers, fishermen, independent contractors, gig workers and nonprofit employees not already covered by regular state unemployment benefits.
“These uncertain times have been particularly difficult for our small businesses and self-employed Mainers. I know that waiting for unemployment benefits has been a challenge for many, but help is on the way,” said state Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “Standing up a completely new unemployment program is complex, and our team worked diligently to get this done.”
All claims will be retroactive to the date of business closure or job separation provided on the application, back until March 15.
Claimants filing for PUA will be asked to self-attest to their earnings in either 2018 or 2019 when they file their claim. The federal Office of the Inspector General has advised that this program will be subject to rigorous audits, and so the department asks that claimants provide accurate information to the best of their ability.
PUA benefits start at 50 percent of the average weekly state unemployment benefit for self-employed and those who do not meet monetary eligibility for regular unemployment. This is $172 per week. If you are self-employed, once the department is able to verify documented earnings, PUA benefits will be adjusted retroactively. The maximum benefit available under PUA is $445 per week.
In addition, anyone who receives a PUA benefit also receives the full $600 additional weekly benefit from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which is available through July 25. Claimants will need to file a certification every week in order to receive benefits.
To expedite the benefits process, claimants are not required at this time to send the department paper or electronic copies of documents showing their earnings. The department will let claimants know later in May when these documents should be uploaded to finalize their claims.
Applicants who have been denied unemployment benefits due to not having enough earnings to qualify for state benefits do not need to reapply. Their claim in the system will automatically process.
Those who are self-employed and who attempted to file for unemployment benefits before PUA was implemented must log in to their online unemployment account and update their claim with their earnings.
New applicants should visit https://www.maine.gov/unemployment/ and fill out the new application form for PUA. Submit weekly certification each week thereafter.
For more information, visit maine.gov/unemployment/pua/.
Since March 15, the state Department of Labor has paid out benefits to over 70,000 people, totaling about $200 million.
Those with a question about their existing claim can leave a message at https://www.maine.gov/labor/contact/ or call (800) 593-7660. Those who are locked out of their account because they need their password reset should live-chat with a CareerCenter at https://www.mainecareercenter.gov.
“The Department of Labor continues to implement solutions to the challenges created by the sudden and unprecedented levels of questions and claims to meet the needs of Maine people,” according to a press release. “Claims staff are working extended hours, as well as on Saturdays and holidays, to process applications and contact claimants.”
The department has also contracted with a Maine-based call center to provide claims assistance. About 100 people are answering calls, up from 13 a month ago. The online unemployment system is “performing as designed and is available 24/7.”
The Department of Labor recommends that people file their claims online, using a computer as opposed to a smartphone, if possible. The department has also implemented an alphabetical call-in schedule to help reduce phone line congestion to manage capacity to receive and process claims.
Claimants with last names beginning with A-H should call on Monday, I-Q on Tuesday, and R-Z on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are available for those who miss their alphabetical day or need to call at that time.