February 26, 2010

Jobless Mainers may miss out on aid

By ANN S. KIM Staff Writer

— By ANN S. KIM

Staff Writer

Maine ranks near the bottom among the 50 states in terms of the percentage of unemployed workers receiving unemployment benefits.

In the third quarter of 2009, Maine ranked 43rd, with an unemployment insurance recipiency rate of 31 percent for the state's regular unemployment program, according to figures from the U.S. Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration.

The performance is prompting the state Department of Labor to embark on a study of Maine's unemployment recipiency rate.

Nationwide, the recipiency rates range from a high of 60 percent in Pennsylvania to a low of 23 percent in South Dakota. The District of Columbia came in further down, with a rate of 22 percent.

The national average was 39 percent.

Within New England, the state rankings were scattered. Connecticut had the highest for the region, coming in at No. 4 with a 54 percent rate. Rhode Island was No. 50, with 29 percent. Vermont was No. 6 at 47 percent, New Hampshire No. 11 at 45 percent and Massachusetts No. 14 at 44 percent.

Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said her department's study should be completed early this year.

She said the areas that will be examined include the statistical models used to calculate the recipiency rates, the internal department processes used to track data and departmental IT systems. She said some worker advocates believe that state statutes governing eligibility may play into the low rate.

Another possible factor is the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, which can accompany the evasion of unemployment insurance laws.

''At this point, we're looking at everything,'' Fortman said.

While Maine's recipiency rate is not far off from the national average, it means a large number of unemployed workers -- including those who are eligible for unemployment benefits -- are not receiving them, Fortman said.

''We want to make sure anyone who's eligible for unemployment insurance is accessing that benefit,'' she said.

Chris Hastedt, policy director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said it's concerning that the safety net for unemployed workers could be failing more than half of them. She said that when unemployed workers fall through the cracks, they will have to rely on other programs for assistance.

''I think that it is tremendously important to get to the bottom of what this story and these numbers appear to tell,'' she said.

Nationally, the recipiency rate fell from 56 percent in the recession of 1975-1976 to 39 percent in the recession of 1981-1983. It increased to 43 percent in the recession of 1991-1992, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Labor Department.

Researchers cited a decline in unionization, the federal taxation of unemployment benefits and changes in how unemployment is measured as the most credible factors for the decline.

Christine Riordan, a policy analyst with the New York-based National Employment Law Project, said Maine's situation is unusual in that it has broad eligibility requirements but a low recipiency rate.

One factor may be that in Maine, as in many states, a displaced worker may not be eligible for the maximum 26 weeks provided by the state's regular program, she said. As workers fall off the rolls, they are no longer counted in the recipiency rate.

A number of factors determine eligibility, including whether the job is considered seasonal. Riordan said those rules may make some workers ineligible.

Another common factor is that sometimes people simply do not realize they are eligible for unemployment insurance, Riordan said.

For example, workers who held part-time jobs, who had to leave a job to care for a sick family member or who are in retraining programs may not realize that they can collect benefits.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be

contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

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