Three weeks after the state switched to a new online system for filing unemployment claims, many residents say they have not received some of their benefits and have had trouble getting anyone to deal with their complaints.

But the Maine Department of Labor says the cloud-based system is performing as expected, that some claimants have been using the system incorrectly, and that it is addressing problems that have prevented them from receiving their unemployment checks.

The state labor department announced in late November it was joining the ReEmployUSA partnership, which includes Mississippi, Rhode Island and Connecticut, to streamline claims processing through a new software program designed to reduce administrative costs and fraud. Maine’s version of the program is called ReEmployMe.

The U.S. Department of Labor granted the four states $90 million to develop the system. Maine has been working on the project with Mississippi, which was the first to implement the system, since 2013.

Maine switched to the system on Dec. 6, but some claimants have said they received only the initial week’s check following the launch, and nothing since then.

Mark Dobson, a Wiscasset resident who has been unemployed for nine months and had been using the previous system successfully, said he was able to log in to the new system Dec. 7, file a claim and get a check. But for the next three weeks he was unable to log in, and wasn’t able to reach anyone at the labor department on the phone.

Dobson called the department’s 800 number as well as its local number in Augusta. Calls to the “Freedom of Access Coordinator” and the “Help Desk” went unanswered. “It kept going to voicemail or to an automated message,” that said they could not take calls. “There were several weeks I was trying to call three or four times a day.”

When he tried to log in Thursday, he was informed the system wasn’t available, but he did get a phone call from a department staffer.

“They were responding to a voicemail I left two weeks ago, just checking in,” Dobson said.

That person guided him through the process of re-establishing a log-in password, but so much time had passed he had to file a new claim.

“So it’s basically been since early December since I received benefits,” he said. He says the labor department should have had the phones staffed.

“It seems they never tested out the system thoroughly, then made the change before the holidays,” he said.

Dobson, who has a background in sales and most recently worked at a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company, said his experience was frustrating, but he understands others are worse off. He has savings that have shrunk during his unemployment, but he doesn’t have children.

Dobson’s story was echoed by others around the state.

Julie Watson of Clinton said she also experienced problems with the system. Like Dobson, she received her first check, but not the next two and she couldn’t get through to anyone. After weeks of frustration, she called the offices of Gov. Paul LePage and her state representative, Rep. Scott Strom, R-Pittsfield. Strom got back to her right away and helped her get in touch with the labor department, which helped her set up her log-in again.

She described it as “quite an episode” even though the labor department fixed things “in a timely manner.”

“But I had to go through a lot of channels,” she said. “For me it was survival mode kicked in. It’s winter. I started thinking of the little families starting to prepare for Christmas.”

Labor department spokeswoman Laura Hudson said the most frequent problems have involved the log-in page or a claimant not correctly indicating they are searching for work.

Claimants have been locking themselves out by repeatedly using an incorrect username or password when attempting to log on, she said.

“The biggest thing we continue to see is claimants not completing the work search,” she said. “Because of the extremely high call volume associated with these two primary issues, we have had to add staff and two telephone lines to help manage the call level.”

She said there have also been technical problems.

“When data migrates, there are often little glitches that occur,” she said.

Over the last few weeks, Hudson said, most of the problems brought to the department’s attention have been solved.

For the most part, she said, the new system was performing as expected, and the department was pleased with the transition. She said staffers were able to isolate the flaws in the first week and correct them, and they are still solving smaller problems, which they hope to have addressed by the end of the week.

“We have made those with the most claims pending a priority,” she said.

The department has called and emailed the roughly 600 claimants who were filing without completing work search information, she said.

Since the new system went live, Hudson said, the labor department had helped 9,865 claimants register as of Dec. 22. Staff have helped claimants file 5,761 initial claims and 16,953 weekly certifications. They have processed and paid 11,571 weekly certifications and paid out more than $3.6 million in benefits.

Maine had a 3.5 percent unemployment rate in October, which had dropped to 3.3 percent in November. Maine’s labor force is about 705,000 workers and about 25,000 of them are unemployed, according to federal statistics.

Julie Watson said what bothered her was that problems with the new claim system were statewide, but claimants weren’t being told that. She said the labor department could have put a message on its answering machine about it.

“At first I thought it was just me,” she said. “Even though when they established their new system I went through all the hoops, managed to get in and file a claim. I knew I’d done all that right. But the next week, this is when it all started. So I knew I’d done everything right to get in their new system. Then it ruffled my feathers. They could have let us know. It would have been frustrating, but at least we would have known.”

Dozens have commented on the labor department’s Facebook page, describing problems similar to Dobson’s and Watson’s.

One Facebook user on Wednesday wrote, “after calling 8x this morning and waiting for a total of over 30 minutes, i dont know what to do. Does anyone have any advice? Really saddening that this systems is so archaic.” That user immediately posted again, saying “disconnected each time by the system after being on hold for 5-10 minutes.”

The labor department responded: “Please call our support phone line 623-7965 and someone will log and submit a case on your behalf.”

On Thursday, the labor department announced that its claims filing system would be undergoing maintenance from 5:30 to 6 p.m. and the web and automated phone filing system would be unavailable. Additional phone lines have been added to help reduce wait times and are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

However, the support line cannot provide answers to questions about unemployment benefits or claims processing.

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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