Editorial: Unemployment system cannot meet current needs

The effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic on Maine’s economy have been widespread and severe and have affected almost all sectors. The state’s unemployment system quickly showed it was not able to meet the demands. Even two months in, the story is largely the same with reports of filers still waiting on claims they filed in mid-March 

A recently released report by the Maine Department of Labor found that the number of job losses topped 98,000 in April—the largest monthly loss on record.  

For perspective, last April, Maine’s unemployment rate was 3.1 percent. In March, the rate stood at 3 percent, and 2020 appeared to be on track for another banner year. Seasonal businesses were decrying a lack of qualified employees and help wanted ads sometimes ran in the newspaper for the entire length of the summer season in tourist hot spots.  

What a difference a month makes. In April, the number of unemployed shot up to 10.6 percent, bringing an abrupt stop to a rate that was on a years-long downward trajectory. And while still lower than the national average of 14.7 percent, it is a far cry from where we were just a few month ago.  

In Hancock County specifically, the unemployment rate currently stands at 12.1 percent, up from 4.4 percent a year ago.  

Between March 15 and May 16, more than 90,000 initial claims for unemployment were made, according to the Maine Department of Labor, a figure that represents roughly 13 percent of the state’s workforce. When you look at a chart showing the flow of jobs over a three-year period, there are ups and downs. But around March, the line drops precipitously, with two-thirds of the losses coming from the hospitality industry where 42,600 (61 percent) jobs have been lost since February, as well as from the healthcare and social assistance fields, retail trade and manufacturing sectors.  

With a sudden loss of employment came the need for out-of-work Mainers to access unemployment insurance. From reports of busy signals, to incorrect denials, to the slow roll out of a program to serve Maine’s self-employed, the flood of filings and calls has overwhelmed the system and frustrated those trying to use it.  

It has been more than two months since the first wave of filers have tried to claim benefits, and yet there are still many who have been unable to gain access or to get anyone on the phone to help.  

Two weeks ago, the state’s Committee on Labor and Housing called on the MDOL commissioner to answer questions at a briefing. She said one of the largest challenges to the department was a lack of staffing. Isn’t that ironic given the number of folks looking for a job? 

Yes, this is unprecedented and largely unexpected, but as we emerge from this pandemic and begin to rebuild our economy, we also need to rebuild our technological and web-based infrastructures, as well as create state-wide contingency plans that can handle sudden swells and help those who are most vulnerable.    

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