In recent years thousands of unemployed Maine workers have had to wait as long as two months for unemployment benefits. This problem threw many workers into financial crisis. These workers rely on unemployment benefits to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table when they lose their job. They can’t afford to go weeks without paying the rent or heating bills while they wait for their benefits. Federal law knows this and requires that unemployment benefits be paid with the “greatest possible promptness”. Yet Maine has not met these promptness standards since 2011. In fact, for some time now Maine has ranked at or near the bottom of all states for timely payments in cases that involve an eligibility issue that requires fact-finding by the Department of Labor (DOL).
Some relief is finally coming to speed up these decisions. In 2013 Governor LePage established a six-member Unemployment Reform Blue Ribbon Commission. MEJP was asked to serve on the Commission by its chair, former Chief Justice Dan Wathen. The original purpose of this Commission was to explore whether or not employees were being favored over employers in the unemployment insurance system. However, the Commission took a broader look at the program. After several months, it found no direct bias against either employers or employees in the system. It also identified benefit delays as a serious problem and recommended hiring more staff to get benefits to unemployed workers faster.
Responding to this recommendation, the Governor introduced legislation asking to fund 24 new staff to work on UI appeals at the DOL. The legislation received strong support and was enacted by an emergency vote. While it will take some time to hire and train these new staff, help is on the way to get benefits to unemployed workers more quickly.