AUGUSTA — State legislators Thursday told state labor officials that they are concerned about the state’s new unemployment filing system following complaints from constituents.

The discussion was held during a hearing on revising unemployment system laws before the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, was particularly outspoken during discussions with John Feeney, the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, and Dale Smith, the deputy executive director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

Mississippi spearheaded what eventually became the four-state consortium known as ReEmployUSA, a cloud-based filing system that Maine is a part of, along with Rhode Island and Connecticut.

“The damage is done to a lot of folks that haven’t been paid,” said Fecteau, who co-chairs the committee with Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.

Maine unveiled its new unemployment filing system in early December.

The House Democratic Office has reported dozens of complaints since the roll-out, and Fecteau asked Feeney and Smith multiple times if the Maine Department of Labor had rushed too fast to implement the new system.

“I’m concerned with whether the department made the right decision,” Fecteau said.

Smith said that when Mississippi first implemented its system, known as AccessMS, problems persisted for about six months.

But he also said virtually every state that has tried to modernize its unemployment filing system has faced challenges. He said Mississippi went through three different stages deploying its system, beginning in 2015 and culminating with its last rollout this past August.

“This is not a broken system,” he said, but rather a matter of “odds and ends” getting cleaned up.

Fecteau specifically asked about the number of employees each state had answering the phones for claimants who had complaints.

Smith said the number varied, but in Mississippi it ranged from three to 20-plus people daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Feeney said 14 staff members were dedicated to answering phones in Maine, but only from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Fecteau asked whether December was the appropriate time to unveil the new system, considering the traditionally high number of claims at that time of year.

Feeney said they had been targeting October, but the start had to be pushed back. He said it couldn’t be postponed until 2018, because it would affect future timelines and run afoul of financial constraints.

A persistent complaint in Maine has been the inability of claimants to reach someone by phone. State representatives have also reported many cases of constituents trying unsuccessfully to file online – often being locked out of their accounts or told their password was incorrect – and then trying to call the department’s helpline multiple times. People have said they have been put on hold for hours or been disconnected.

“I am deeply concerned that as it exists now, it is a broken system,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester.

Bellows said she was apprehensive about how the new system would perform going forward – especially in March, when more seasonal workers such as loggers would be out of work.

“I’m really worried that we’re not out of the woods at all,” she said.

Another concern that came up was that claimants can file claims only on Sundays. Feeney said that work search forms, which are required for those seeking unemployment benefits, can’t be filed until the end of the week because it must have that week’s information on it.

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

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Twitter: @colinoellis