BANGOR – When unemployment jumped from just over 600 cases a week in Maine to more than 21,000, it apparently caused a traffic jam for those applying for benefits.
“I tried to log back in and it was just saying my user name was invalid,” Monica Johnson, a Bar Harbor resident said about applying for unemployment.
“I’m like, ‘That’s so weird’ because I just created it. So I tried another internet, I tried waiting later, I tried the next morning, I tried logging in from different devices and it just wasn’t working,” Johnson said.
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Janet Mills submitted emergency legislation to expand unemployment benefits for people. That expansion streamlined the process by temporarily waiving the one-week waiting period and not requiring a job search.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the recently authorized stimulus package may help ease the problem.
“I, too, have heard from many Mainers who have tried to call the unemployment office or get online and file electronically and it seems no matter what time day or night they try they just can’t get through,” Collins said.
She said the recently passed $2 trillion stimulus package includes funding for states under a stabilization fund that could be used to hire more people, and the Paycheck Protection Plan will provide money for small businesses to keep people working.
“They’re doing the best they can but I think they are overwhelmed and grossly understaffed,” Collins said of unemployment staffers. “I know the governor is really concerned about that.”
She added, “It’s also a reason why our Paycheck Protection Program is so important because if we can get people back on their payrolls again, they won’t have to be collecting unemployment.”
Johnson said one of the biggest downsides is the unemployment officer is only open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
“So you have a very small window to get in there,” she said of the phone queue. “You either get a message that says unable to accept the call or you, you know, I haven’t been about to get through. I just wait on the phone the entire time.”
Johnson said she’s seeing stories on Facebook about others having similar problems.
“I did what the state of Maine has asked me to do but I feel completely helpless,” Johnson said. “And you know I’m unable to help myself at this point and unable to get anyone in the government or the unemployment office to assist me so it’s pretty frustrating.”