Nearly 21,500 Mainers filed for unemployment benefits last week, by far the highest weekly total on record.

Economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered businesses across the state. Maine’s lauded food, beverage and service industries have been particularly hard-hit as restaurants and bars have been forced to close or offer only takeout and delivery options.

The weekly number of new claims is nearly quadruple that of the first week in January 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, when about 5,600 Mainers filed for unemployment benefits.

The nearest comparison for single-week claims occurred during the 1991 state government shutdown, when 11,800 government workers were temporarily laid off.

The flood of claims has stretched the state’s unemployment office to its limits, causing some applicants to wait hours on the phone or days for an email response.

Nationwide, almost 3.3 million workers filed for unemployment benefits last week, the highest seasonally adjusted total on record, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The previous high was in October 1982, when about 695,000 workers filed claims.

“This is a pretty unprecedented recession we’re entering,” said Sarah Austin, a policy analyst for the progressive think tank Maine Center for Economic Policy. “Usually this happens over a series of months; this is happening over a series of weeks.”

More than one-third of claims filed in Maine last week – about 8,000 – were from the accommodation and food service industries, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Health care and social assistance workers filed almost 3,600 claims. There were 1,131 claims from manufacturers and about 1,100 in retail trade.

Even before Gov. Janet Mills ordered restaurants and bars to close their dining rooms to the public last Wednesday to curtail the spread of coronavirus, many establishments had limited service or shuttered altogether.

Zoe Borenstein, 23, was a line cook at The Honey Paw, a popular Asian restaurant in Portland, for almost a year until she was suddenly laid off with the rest of its hourly staff last Monday.

She qualified for unemployment benefits last week, but on Wednesday still wasn’t sure how much she was eligible to receive or when her first check would arrive.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go without having any source of income,” Borenstein said.

Cooks at Honey Paw were making $13 to $15 an hour, she added, just enough to cover day-to-day expenses.

“It’s not enough to put away for savings at all, even if you are really, really good at budgeting, which I try to be,” Borenstein said. “It is sort of the same for everyone. That’s the thing that is helping me at least, knowing we are all in the same boat.”

Zoe Borenstein, laid off from Honey Paw, sits outside her Portland home. She said, “I don’t know how much longer I can go without having any source of income.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Unemployment benefits replace some of an employee’s lost income. The amount for each recipient is calculated based on wages earned during a set period before the job loss, with the average weekly payment being about $350 in Maine. People can receive benefits for up to 26 weeks.

A $2 trillion economic recovery bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, and expected to receive approval Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives, includes measures to extend the maximum duration of unemployment benefits and increase payments by up to $600 a week. It also would provide benefits to those normally ineligible, such as the self-employed and contract workers.

Caroline Richter, 28, was excited for her job as bar manager at Leeward, an new Italian restaurant on Free Street in Portland. The restaurant closed last week, after being open only a few days.

The financial stress is hard, but so is the disappointment of working on a new venture only to have the rug pulled out from underneath it.

“We had all this momentum going and then just had to close down,” Richter said.

Her fiancé, a manager at a different Portland restaurant, is still getting a paycheck, and Richter is receiving unemployment benefits. The couple was saving for a house, so they have a little emergency fund, but it is uncertain for how long.

“We have some money to tide us over, but it just depends how long it lasts,” Richter said. “If it is a month we’ll be fine, but not three months.”

The global economic crisis caused by coronavirus also has impacted white-collar workers in less obvious ways.

The Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, a Portland-based nonprofit group that organizes study-abroad programs for U.S. and international students, announced a “significant reduction in force” on Wednesday.

The company’s revenue-generating programs were suspended in a matter of days as countries across the globe implemented full-scale lockdowns and travel restrictions. It had to help thousands of students return to the U.S. immediately, the company said in a statement.

The layoffs “will impact families and communities around the globe, but most especially in Portland, Maine, the site of our worldwide headquarters,” it said.

A company representative did not immediately respond to questions about the size of its workforce or how many employees were let go. CIEE has up to 500 employees, according to Maine Department of Labor.

American Roots, a small clothing manufacturer in Portland, saw 50 percent of its annual sales disappear in 36 hours, said owner Ben Waxman. He had to lay off 80 percent of his workforce – about 25 people – while the company scrambles to retool and rehire workers to make personal protective equipment.

“We are all-hands-on-deck to figure out how to get our workforce back and work on how we can deal with this crisis,” Waxman said. “This is a test of a generation.”

The state’s unemployment office was unprepared for the avalanche of claims, with just 14 specialists to answer questions and process applications. Its phone lines are only open from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., and there is now a weeklong backlog of emails from people desperate for help.

Krister Rollins, 63, was laid off from his job as head of the ski school at Mt. Abram in Greenwood when the resort shut down early for the season on March 15.

Rollins said he filed for unemployment benefits online Tuesday, but paused the application because he was unsure about a question. When he returned to finish it, he forgot his newly made password and was locked out of the system after two tries.

“I get that it is my fault that I got locked out, that I didn’t remember the password, but two times is pretty quick,” Rollins said.

Unable to reset the password online, Rollins called the department’s help line and sent an email. He has yet to hear back.

“I’ve been calling that phone number nonstop for a week and never gotten through, not once,” Rollins said. “I get that they are busy, but it is frustrating, that’s all.”

Maine Labor Commisisoner Laura Fortman said her staff is working to keep up with the thousands of claims pouring in, but even with some quick additions to bring the office’s total staff up to 30 people this week, the department is still catching up.

“I’d say the volume and demand has exceeded the staffing capacity” for a department used to handling a 3.1 percent unemployment rate, Fortman said. Maine had just 634 unemployment claims filed in the week ending March 14.

Fortman urged people to try and file online at maine.gov/unemployment if they are able, and to contact staff at local Career Centers for answers to typical questions about unemployment. The statewide Career Center hotline is 888-457-8883.

The department has added a note to its website saying workers who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak in the past week but  were unable able to submit a claim still will have their claims accepted next week, as well.

The leading complaints for people attempting to file are getting locked out of their accounts or being unable to reach someone on the phone at the department, Fortman said. Local internet speeds may also cause lag for some users, although the state’s online portal has been stable, she said.

More than $4.5 million was paid out in benefits between Monday and Tuesday, Fortman said.

The number of people out of work because of the health emergency is likely larger than even the staggering number of claims filed last week. Those claims account for roughly 3 percent of the state’s 640,000-strong workforce.

Some workers may have waited to file, had their application held up or been unsure if they qualified. At least 67,000 Mainers are self-employed, and are not currently eligible for unemployment insurance, even if their income has evaporated.

Jamien Hill, 35, made about $500 a week driving for ride-share companies in the Portland area full-time for more than a year. She stopped two weeks ago when cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, started accelerating in Maine.

“I’m not scared to get sick, but I don’t want to spread it to anyone,” Hill said.

She’s waiting for a relief bill to make its way through Capitol Hill before filing for unemployment, but is unsure how much she’ll qualify for and what kind of benefits to expect. Right now, she and her boyfriend are living off of income from his job as an independent computer programmer.

“It depends on what you made before this happened – I don’t know how they average that out,” Hill said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to survive.”

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