(The Center Square) – The pandemic exposed the shortcomings of Maine's unemployment programs, according to state lawmakers, who are pushing for a major overhaul of the system.
The state Legislature is considering several proposals, including one filed by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, to modernize the system by improving the process for filing initial claims, boosting the amount of money that jobless workers can receive and expanding the number of people who qualify for benefits.
Fecteau told members of the Legislature's Labor and Housing Committee this week that "the unemployment insurance system let Maine people down when they needed it most."
"While Maine has made great strides at meeting the public health challenges of the pandemic, the challenges of the unemployment insurance system have also directly impacted over 160,000 Maine people and the families they’re trying to support," he said. "We have a responsibility to make things right and reform our system so that it works for Maine people."
His proposal would increase the number of unemployed workers who get benefits and boost supplemental jobless benefits for dependent children and part-time workers.
Under the plan, workers would be allowed to leave their jobs for personal reasons like child care or transportation and collect unemployment benefits.
Fecteau's plan would also eliminate a one week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits, prevent interest from accumulating on non-fraud related overpayments and penalize employers that discourage workers from applying for benefits.
He said the changes would "ensure that Maine workers receive timely and adequate unemployment benefits and that our system runs smoothly to help them get back on their feet."
But his plan and others to overhaul the system are opposed by the Maine Jobs Council, a business advocacy group, which says the changes would hurt employers who are struggling to recover from the pandemic.
"The best way to encourage worker prosperity is with a robust economy full of quality jobs that provide choices, career growth, and increasing wages," Ben Lucas, the group's executive director, told the committee. "These unemployment laws would do the reverse."
The Retail Association of Maine, which supports some changes to the unemployment system, is expressing concerns about the potential cost of Fecteau's bill, which isn't known yet. The group called for more employer input on plans to overhaul the system.
"Maine is a state where reasonable people can come together and address the needs of businesses and the people they employ in both good times and in times like the recent situation which tested us all," Curtis Picard, the association's president and CEO, told the committee on Monday.
A recent survey of jobless workers, conducted by the Maine chapter of the AFL-CIO and Maine Equal Justice, found that nearly 40 percent of jobless claimants faced delays of more than 30 days to receive benefits and that the payments didn’t meet the needs of many families with children.
Like most states, Maine saw a crush on jobless claims in the past year as the government shut down businesses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The state has distributed about $2.1 billion in state and federal jobless benefits to nearly 370,000 jobless workers during the pandemic, according to the labor department.