Another 30,900 Mainers filed for unemployment benefits last week, hitting a new high after weeks of economic disruption amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Since March 15, there have been more than 76,000 initial unemployment claims filed in Maine, more than double total initial claims for all of 2019.

Nationally, 6.6 million U.S. workers sought unemployment compensation last week. About 16.8 million Americans filed for unemployment in the past three weeks, the largest and fastest string of job losses on record, according to The Associated Press. Roughly one in 10 American workers are now out of a job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it said.

That share of all jobs lost is even higher in Maine, at about 11 percent, according to the state Department of Labor. It said 24 percent of all jobs in the food service and lodging industry have been wiped out, as well as 24 percent of jobs in the entertainment and recreation industry. Other industries have suffered smaller losses, including manufacturing (9 percent), health care and social assistance (8 percent) and retail (7 percent).

Maine’s Labor Department has struggled to keep up with the pace of claims. People trying to file for unemployment benefits have reported frustration and anger trying to get through overloaded phone lines and navigating the claims website.

Jess LaRocque, 34, of Bridgton lost her job at a dermatologist’s office three weeks ago and tried to file for unemployment compensation right away.

LaRocque is sure she qualifies for benefits, but she hasn’t been able to get her claim through. Every time she finishes her application on her smartphone, she gets a message that she needs to talk to someone at the unemployment office.

LaRocque said she has called every day before 8 a.m. so she can get in the queue. She still hasn’t been able to reach anyone to answer her questions, she said. Department staff members are answering calls only between 8 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.

“Nobody seems to have any answers and no one can point me in the right direction,” LaRocque said. “I’m kind of stuck and running out of money and hoping for the best.”

The silver lining to the situation is that she can spend time with her young boys, ages 10 and 2. LaRocque is trying to remain upbeat, but she’s worried – right now, she is using an income tax refund to stay afloat.

“Every morning I wake up and it is the same disappointment,” she said. “I’m trying to maintain a positive attitude as much as I can for the kids. I don’t want them to panic.”

The unemployment office is still receiving a very high volume of calls, but it has moderated since the office implemented a daily call-in schedule this week based on the first letter of an applicant’s last name.

“Last week we were seeing over 250,000 phone calls a morning, which was making the phone system crash,” Labor Department spokeswoman Jessica Picard said. “With the new call-in system this week, calls have been reduced to around 50,000 calls a morning.”

The system is still overloaded, but the phone lines are stable and people can get through to speak to a representative, Picard said.

Jobs in the food service and lodging sector were hit fastest and deepest because Maine’s hotels, restaurants and bars were forced to close or sharply curtail service.

About 12,650 food service and lodging workers – nearly one in four – have claimed unemployment benefits since mid-March, according to Labor Department figures.

Health care and social assistance lost 8,370 jobs, retail lost 5,830 jobs and manufacturing lost more than 2,000. Hundreds of workers in education, construction, wholesale trade, professional and technical services, information, agriculture, and local and state government have been laid off.

The largest chunk of claims, 35,320, is not specific to any industry in department data because there were fewer than five initial claims per employer.

Overall, 11 percent of the state’s employed workforce has successfully filed for unemployment benefits in the past three weeks – more than one in 10 workers in the state.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman was unavailable for an interview Thursday. On Maine Public’s “Maine Calling” radio program, Fortman said the state paid out $10 million in benefits to laid-off workers last week. She doubted unemployment claims would level off.

“Every week we are coming up with record-breaking numbers of initial claims,” Fortman said. “We are seeing similar call volumes. We won’t know until next Thursday, but things have not eased off.”

The number of successful claims likely undercounts the number of Mainers who lost their jobs or livelihoods, as some were unable to file because of technical issues or because they were contractors or self-employed and currently do not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Nationally, the job market is quickly unraveling as businesses have shut down across the country. All told, in the past three weeks, 16.8 million Americans have filed for unemployment aid, and the surge of jobless claims has overwhelmed state unemployment offices around the country. And still more job cuts are expected.

The United States is experiencing the largest and fastest string of job losses on record dating to 1948, the AP reported. By contrast, during the Great Recession it took 44 weeks – roughly 10 months – for unemployment claims to go as high as they now have in less than a month.

More than 20 million people nationwide may lose their jobs this month and the U.S. unemployment rate could hit 15 percent when the April employment report is released in early May, the AP said.

Maine’s Labor Department has no estimate of the number of people who have not received unemployment benefits because they were ineligible or unable to file a claim, Picard said.

The federal CARES Act, passed two weeks ago, expanded unemployment eligibility to contractors, “gig” workers and the self-employed. It also adds $600 per week for benefits until July 25 and extends benefits for 13 weeks, to a total of 39 weeks. Weekly unemployment pay for Mainers ranges from $177 to $445. The average payment is about $350.

But so far, Maine and most other states have not implemented those program expansions. Picard said the department is still reviewing guidance it received from the U.S. Department of Labor last week about the new benefits.

Labor departments in New Hampshire and Vermont have not expanded their programs either, according to notices on their websites.

The Massachusetts Department of Labor says claimants will begin receiving the additional $600 per week immediately. But it has not implemented the benefit extensions, and said a platform for newly eligible self-employed and contract workers to apply will not be up and running until April 30.

“These are brand new programs that do not currently exist, and so we are in the process of having to create them from scratch,” Picard said. The department is testing the program it will use to disburse the added $600 weekly payments to claimants, but it has not expanded eligibility and has not received federal guidance for adding the additional 13-week duration.

That’s cold comfort for Dennis Bonville, 48, of Gray. He’s a self-employed contractor, but stopped working when Maine schools closed a few weeks ago to stay home and take care of his daughters, who are 10 and 17.

He tried to file for benefits and connect with the department on the phone, but gave up three days ago when it became clear he didn’t qualify. Bonville said he’s behind on his rent and his auto insurance, and is worried about feeding his family.

“On the website it says use up other resources,” he said. “My resources were used up the first week this happened.”

Bonville said he reached out to Sen. Susan Collins’ office for help, and they replied that he should be able to file soon, but didn’t provide specifics. He has no idea when, or if, he’ll be able to claim unemployment benefits.

“They’re not giving clear answers, no one is,” Bonville said. “I don’t want to have to drag my kids to work with me, but it might get to a point that I have to.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.