Maine AFL-CIO Calls for Immediate Relief for Laid-Off Workers & Structural Change to Unemployment System

Ahead of today’s hearing of the Labor and Housing committee on Unemployment, the Maine AFL-CIO called on the Maine Department of Labor to provide immediate relief to laid-off workers and others who are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic and forced to go without income for weeks while they wait for the unemployment system to process their claims. The federation of 160 Maine union locals and the low-income advocacy group Maine Equal Justice have released a memo with eight recommendations to provide immediate relief to Mainers struggling to get their unemployment benefits and to reform and modernize our Unemployment system so it can meet the needs of the 21st century workforce. 
 
“At a time of unprecedented unemployment when tens of thousands of Mainers are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognize that Maine Department of Labor employees are working harder than ever to ensure Mainers get the help they need during this crisis – more than 70,000 workers have received benefits.  Unfortunately, thousands of workers have waited weeks and weeks with no income due to understaffing and a dire need to modernize our Unemployment system.  This is unacceptable,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “We need to take immediate action to help people waiting for benefits. At the same time we must improve the efficiency of this program and ensure that all workers — whether they are full-time, part-time, self-employed or freelancers — get the economic security they need when they fall on hard times.” 

The current unemployment system was created in the 1930s when most Americans worked full-time and few women and older Americans were in the workforce. Since then, the country has shifted dramatically from a manufacturing-based economy to a service sector economy with increasing numbers of workers forced to cobble together part-time, temporary and gig work. These are often low wage jobs with irregular work schedules that don’t provide enough hours to qualify for unemployment insurance. As a result, just one in four unemployed Maine workers (26 percent) received UI in 2019. We’ve also witnessed continued chipping away at administrative funding.
 
That’s why Maine AFL-CIO and Maine Equal Justice are calling on our elected officials to take a number of steps to improve the system for all workers and ensure that they are able to safely re-enter the workforce by:
 
Immediate Relief/Crisis Response:
  1. Guarantee that workers are not forced into unsafe or unsuitable working environments as a condition of maintaining UI benefits; workers who do not feel safe to work because of COVID should continue to be able to access Unemployment. No one should be forced to choose between their health and their livelihood. 
  2. Broadly construe and enforce protections under state and federal law providing benefits to workers unemployed as a result of COVID-19 related conditions. Workers with family members at high risk must be able to stay home to keep their families safe.  Make sure that these provisions remain in place as long as needed;
  3. Establish a staffing plan that provides for a more effective response time for claimants in need of telephonic assistance, and those with an issue that must be resolved through fact-finding, and include a funding request in the next biennial budget to supplement, if needed, the request made in the FY 2020 Supplemental budget;
  4. Adapt technology so that (a) persons filing on mobile phones may more easily submit their claims; (b) mistakes on claims can be more readily corrected; and (c) checking a pending claims in which an "issue" has been identified can be accomplished more easily, and the issues more readily understood. 
Structural Reform & Modernization of the Unemployment Insurance System
  1. Require the Department of Labor to analyze and improve its UI recipiency rate, ensuring that workers previously shut out of the system can access needed benefits;
  2. Examine the extent to which Maine’s unemployment insurance benefits provide adequate economic security to unemployed workers and their families, including adequate amounts, duration, dependency benefits and partial benefits;
  3. Examine the extent to which the Maine’s unemployment insurance system provides adequate access to education and training assistance necessary to respond to the structural issues of unemployment in today’s economy;
  4. Improve access to work-sharing programs that will both minimize unemployment and maintain workforce attachment.   
“As Maine slowly begins to ease restrictions we must prioritize workers health and safety. No one should be forced into an unsafe work environment. No worker should be denied unemployment benefits and forced into unsafe working conditions.  Workers must be able to continue to access unemployment benefits in order to keep their families safe and to care for loved ones,” said Schlobohm.
 
“Commissioner Fortman and her staff have done the best job that they can with the resources that they have been provided and the system that they have inherited. The urgent need now is to provide immediate relief to thousands of laid-off workers waiting for benefits and to take the necessary steps to modernize and reform this system so it works well for every worker in Maine,” added Schlobohm. “Thousands of Mainers are suffering right now and they need immediate relief. We hope our elected officials consider these proposals to help struggling Mainers during this crisis.”