Unemployment claims soared to record highs in Maine and across the country last week as economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic touched nearly every corner of the nation.

Claims in Maine reached 23,761 for the week ending Saturday, the Department of Labor reported. That surpasses the previous week’s nearly 21,450 claims and is the highest number of weekly claims on record.

In the past two weeks, about 45,200 Mainers have filed for unemployment benefits, more than the roughly 35,400 initial claims filed in all of 2019.

Nationwide, more than 6.6 million people filed for unemployment last week, double the number the week before. Almost 10 million Americans who had jobs in mid-March have since filed for unemployment benefits.

Economists say the unprecedented number of job losses make it clear that economies in the United States and around the world are sinking into a recession.

The state’s unemployment division has strained to keep up with the claims, leading to frustrating wait times and technical hold-ups.


Contractors, the self-employed and other currently ineligible workers are still unable to receive benefits despite the passage of a federal relief bill that expands eligibility, because the Maine Department of Labor has yet to receive instructions from the federal government on how to implement those changes to the claims system.

For many who are already eligible, losing employer-sponsored health insurance will make an already stressful situation worse.

The Maine Center for Economic Policy, a progressive, nonprofit research group, estimates that as many as 87,000 Mainers will be out of work by the end of June as a result of coronavirus.

“What that represents is an unemployment rate of almost 16 percent, many times that of the Great Recession,” policy analyst Sarah Austin said in a conference call Thursday.

Workers in the food, beverage, retail and hospitality service industries have been hit hardest in the wave of joblessness. Maine’s restaurants and bars were closed to the public two weeks ago, although takeout and delivery of food are still allowed. Last week, the state ordered nonessential businesses such as barber shops, shopping malls, gyms, auto dealerships and others to close. On Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills’ statewide stay-at-home order went into effect.

The present recession is unique because it was triggered by measures intended to limit virus transmission and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, Austin said.


“All of these are really big economic numbers that are shocking and have a huge impact on people’s income,” she said. “They can’t be viewed outside of the reality that we are in a public health emergency. We can’t ask policymakers to look at this as an ordinary recession.”

The economic crisis created by physical distancing and stay-at-home measures reverberates beyond public-facing businesses.

Some construction workers and manufacturers are among those who have been laid off. So are some white-collar workers. Last week, Portland-based international education nonprofit CIEE laid off nearly 250 workers. Tilson Technology Management, a Portland-based technology firm, laid off roughly 50 workers after a project in Florida was canceled, a spokeswoman said.

Four Maine employers filed notices required for mass layoffs with the state last week. ConForm, an automotive fiber company in Auburn; Huhtamaki, a paper products mill in Waterville; JS McCarthy Printers in Augusta; and HMS Host, which provides airport food service at Portland International Jetport, said they were laying off between 60 and 100 employees each.

For many, losing a paycheck also means losing health insurance. Employer-sponsored health insurance covers 48 percent of Mainers, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Ann Woloson, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said her agency has seen hundreds more inquiries in the past two weeks compared with previous months.


“We assume that is going to increase even more because we are heading into a new month – people may have been able retain their health care through the end of the month,” Woloson said.

The state expanded Medicare in 2018, a move that will open free or very low-cost health insurance to more people, Woloson said. A family of three with a monthly income of $2,498 or less will qualify for free coverage, she said.

Others can turn to subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. If people lose their health insurance, they have a chance to get a new plan through an insurance exchange, Woloson said.

“I don’t want to say we have a solution for everybody, but many people will be able to get access to affordable coverage in Maine,” she said.

The tsunami of unemployment claims only reflects a portion of Mainers whose income has disappeared. Many small business owners, independent contractors and “gig economy” workers don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

Catherine Scanlon, 53, lost her job as a graphic designer at a small four-person office last week. She applied for benefits but was denied because she did not have the required 18 months of employment history to receive benefits. Scanlon was a stay-at-home parent but went back to school and got her job last August.


Scanlon thinks she will qualify for benefits under the recently passed federal expansion, but just looking at the Department of Labor website she can’t tell if that’s true or when she might get relief.

“There is nothing to reassure you (that) you are going to get your benefits,” Scanlon said. “I feel in the dark. It makes it really hard. Just tell me so I can figure out what I need to do to keep the heat on and feed my kid.”

The federal CARES Act, passed last week, expands eligibility to include those normally ineligible such as contractors, “gig” workers and the self-employed. It also extends the maximum term of unemployment benefits by 13 weeks, to 39 weeks total, and provides an additional $600 per week in benefits to each worker. The typical weekly unemployment benefit in Maine is about $350.

But those benefits are not currently available in Maine, even though the state opted into the program late last week, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said.

“We are in regular contact with Department of Labor, until we get guidance from them, we don’t know what we have to put in place to get these benefits out the door,” she said.

Right now, the department advises laid-off workers who have earned a regular paycheck for the past 18 months to file a claim. Other workers should wait until the federal expansion kicks in, because until then, such claims will be denied, Fortman said.

Mainers continue to have problems applying for unemployment, and they have reported frustration getting answers through the department’s overloaded phone and email systems. Phone calls are only being answered between 8 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. because staff are needed to process claims.

Fortman urged people to apply online, but the website does not operate on smartphones and there is no plan to adapt it for mobile devices, she said. The department has turned to CareerCenter staffs to field simple questions and help reset passwords, hired new workers and brought back retirees, and is considering bringing in private contractors to improve customer service, a department spokeswoman said this week.

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