More than a month after the Maine Department of Labor rolled out a new system for filing unemployment claims, politicians are saying the system is still broken, leaving many Maine residents without a check.

According to state Sen. Shenna Bellows and Rep. Ryan Fecteau, dozens are still reporting they are unable to access the department’s new online system to file a claim for unemployment benefits.

Bellows, D-Manchester, said the Senate Democrats’ office receives more complaints about the new filing system than any other issue.

Since the new system was rolled out in early December, Senate Democrats have received a dozen complaints. Before the holidays, she said the Department of Labor was working to solve these issues individually, but many were still frustrated.

“I’m concerned because it’s now been weeks and there hasn’t been a resolution,” Bellows said.

Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said the House Democrats’ office has received close to 30 calls, which he said is remarkable. For that many people to call their representatives on a single issue is a big step, he said.

“That definitely demonstrates there’s a larger issue occurring,” he said.

The Labor Department announced in late November it was joining the ReEmployUSA partnership, which includes Mississippi, Rhode Island and Connecticut, to streamline claims processing using 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 since 2013 with Mississippi, which was the first to implement the system.

Maine switched to the new cloud-based system on Dec. 6. While many trying to file claims reported problems, the Department of Labor initially reported that the system was working as expected, and those experiencing issues were likely using the system incorrectly.

Fecteau and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, co-chair the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development. Together they sent a letter to Gov. Paul LePage’s office asking that the Labor Department come before the committee to “discuss issues with the rollout of the new electronic unemployment claims management system, solutions to those issues that have either been implemented or are in the process of being implemented, and any advice that we may pass along to constituents regarding the best ways to navigate the new system.”

The Governor’s Office said the department would not attend such a committee meeting. “I’m not satisfied that the response has been adequate,” Fecteau said.

Bellows, who is also on the committee, said this is a major problem for her constituents who have had to go without benefits during the holidays and have been unable to pay for heat during the bitterly cold winter. She said the Labor Department’s new system has failed, and she criticized the governor’s office for not allowing the department to appear before the Legislature and answer questions on how they intend to fix the problem.

“The new system is a failure and the department has not yet fixed it and seems to be unwilling to answer questions as to why it’s not working,” Bellows said.

‘PEOPLE NEED TO EAT’

Bellows said she wants the department to come before the Legislature in a public hearing to provide specifics on how it intends to fix the system’s problems. She said the department hadn’t “done their homework” on this issue.

“When you have this many people with problems, it’s not the public’s problem, it’s the department’s problem,” she said.

A Department of Labor representative did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Fecteau said he personally knows a person who lost a job and has been struggling with the new system ever since. That person created an account on ReEmployMe, but on his first attempt to log in with his password, he was locked out.

Fecteau said the person called the phone number that the Department of Labor directs people to, but the line is only open from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Fecteau said the person called the number multiple times for three consecutive days before finally reaching someone. After the department unlocked his account, Fecteau’s acquaintance tried to log in again and was told there was an error.

“There have been numerous people contacting us about this,” Fecteau said.

Fecteau provided the Morning Sentinel with a letter he received from a constituent detailing her experience after being laid off from the Aroostook County Action Program. She was able to reach a person at the Labor Department and was told she would receive unemployment benefits by Christmastime, but never did. Eventually, she was told she was disqualified because she was not looking for work, even though her layoff was temporary.

“So I began to try to call,” the letter read. “I called and called and called for weeks.”

Fecteau said unemployed Maine residents are having to spend more time on the phone trying to log into their account rather than trying to find new jobs.

Other residents have taken to Facebook, saying they haven’t been able to use the website or get in touch with anyone at the department. One Facebook user commented that the state’s unemployment rate is low because people can’t actually file for unemployment.

On a post about a job fair, one user wrote: “Hard for anyone to pay for gas to get to these job fairs when they have not got a check for 2 weeks. Please get this fixed, or at least hire more people to answer the phones and help them. People need to pay bills and eat.”

‘TERRIBLE FORESIGHT’

Another user wrote: “This is the first time I have collected unemployment and the system is horrible, getting help is nonexistent. I have been trying for weeks to get thru and never have. I called 18 times in one day. I think my job search should say time wasted on trying to contact this office was a substitute.”

Fecteau said he didn’t see why the Labor Department chose to roll out a new filing system in December, when January is a peak time for claims. Launching a “new, unproven system” during the month with the most claims was “terrible foresight,” he said, but he was told by the department that it was on a schedule.

The ReEmployUSA system was officially rolled out in Mississippi on Aug. 30. In the two other states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, rollout isn’t expected for another two years. A representative from the Missisippi Department of Employment Security did not respond to an interview request.

According to the Department of Labor, Maine’s unemployment rate for December fell to 3 percent, down from 3.3 percent in November and 3.8 percent a year ago. The number of Maine residents unemployed was down to 20,700 at the end of 2017. Estimates of the state’s labor force participation rate – a measure of how many working-age Mainers are either working or actively seeking a job – increased from 62 percent in late 2015 to around 64 percent last fall.