AUGUSTA — Maine residents with mental or physical disabilities won’t be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits as of Tuesday because of the federal government shutdown.
Gov. Paul LePage announced Monday night that the shutdown has caused the immediate layoffs of 52 employees in the Disability Determination Office in Winthrop. The office operates under the auspices of the state Department of Health and Human Services and its workers are considered state employees, but their salaries are 100 percent funded by the federal government.
The Winthrop office, which will have to close, is a key cog in the disability application and review process. Workers at the office are responsible for determining who qualifies for federal benefits.
LePage described the layoffs as temporary.
Workers were told at the end of their shifts Monday not to report to work Tuesday.
“The state of Maine has no choice but to suspend operation of disability determination because it relies solely on federal funding,” LePage said in a news release. “This is just one of the many difficult situations we must address as the federal shutdown in Washington continues with no immediate resolution in sight.”
Richard Farnsworth, a Democrat from Portland who is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said Monday night that the closure of the Disability Determination Office is bad for people who have applied for disability benefits but have not heard whether they qualify, and for people who want to apply.
“There will certainly be an impact here in Maine,” Farnsworth said. “The disability community, as a rule, is not a noisy bunch in terms of having a lot of political clout. They will have to suffer in silence.”
Farnsworth said he doesn’t know how many Mainers will be affected.
“I do know that this office is a key piece in the eligibility process,” he said. “That is very important if you are someone who has been waiting for a period of time to hear if you qualify.”
According to the state’s website, the Maine Disability Determination Service is composed of state workers who make disability decisions for the Social Security Administration.
Mainers can apply for Social Security benefits at nine field offices across Maine, ranging from Presque Isle to Augusta, Portland and Saco. John Martins, a spokesman for the DHHS, said he was unsure if the field offices would remain open during the shutdown, but the closure of the Winthrop office “puts a stop to new claims.”
In addition to the 52 workers in the Disability Determination Office, Martins said, four employees who work in the Office of Aging and Disability, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the Office for Family Independence were told Monday not to report to work Tuesday.
Martins said those offices will not have to close because the layoffs will affect only a small percentage of the workforce.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org