Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau has drafted legislation that would overhaul and modernize the state’s unemployment system, which showed signs of problems before the pandemic led to a dramatic increase of claims.
Speaker Fecteau held a virtual press conference last week and said that the bill was still being drafted. Fecteau indicated that the bill is 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.
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.
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.