Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine. 

Q: I’ve been trying to file for unemployment for weeks and still can’t get through on the phone or file online, and have not received an email response. What can I do?

A: If it helps, you are far from alone. And that’s the problem.

Roughly one in seven Maine workers has filed a new unemployment claim since the start of the pandemic, a total of 101,060 – about 14 percent of the state’s workforce. And many, like you, are stuck waiting to hear back from unemployment bureau staff about their claims, or cannot file because they can’t reach the office by phone or have not been able to file online.

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Maine was experiencing record low unemployment before the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic hit, so the state had just 14 experts to handle claims. The state was getting about 250,000 calls a day in the first weeks of the crisis, and is now receiving about 30,000 calls a day after switching to an alphabetical call-in system three weeks ago. (Those with last names beginning with A-H should call on Monday, I-Q on Tuesday, and R-Z on Wednesday. Anyone is welcome to call Thursdays and Fridays.)

While the Department of Labor has brought on 100 more people to answer questions and process claims, they still can’t catch up. The department said it also is developing software to allow newly eligible workers to file claims, and on Friday announced it was expediting decisions on claims without the normal review procedures to try to make a dent in the backlog.

The state is asking people to be patient and allow time for staff to get to your claim or questions. It also says it is best to file from a computer, if you can, and in the evening when internet traffic is reduced. It recommends using a desktop, laptop or tablet to file for unemployment rather than a cellphone.

For the latest information on unemployment claims in Maine, and detailed filing instructions, go to the Department of Labor’s website.

Q: Will the government lift the restrictions on hip and knee replacement surgeries fairly soon? Many of us are in pain and have been for months.

A: As you are painfully aware, elective surgeries at all Maine hospitals and outpatient surgery centers have been put on hold during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Hospitals started delaying such surgeries in mid-March, after Maine had its first confirmed case of novel coronavirus, and the executive order signed by Gov. Janet Mills on March 24 mandated such delays statewide.

The reason elective surgeries – such as joint replacements, cataract removals or bariatric operations – are being postponed is to free up space in the health care system for a surge in COVID-19 patients.

Some parts of the United States, such as New York City, Michigan and Washington state, have seen sudden surges in COVID-19 cases, straining hospital resources. In Italy, doctors had to make life-or-death decisions on which patients would be put on ventilators, because supplies of the machines were so short, and there were so many patients. Hospitals are also trying to conserve protective gear, such as masks, gloves, gowns and shoe coverings, because of a nationwide shortage during the pandemic.

Maine has so far not experienced a massive influx of COVID-19 cases, and cases have started to level off in the last week. Some scientific models show Maine passed its peak in COVID-19 cases in mid-April, but public health experts caution that any reopening be conducted in a gradual way to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

While no time frame for resuming those elective surgeries had been announced as of Friday, it is something the medical community and state officials have been discussing. The Mills administration is expected to release a detailed plan on reopening the state, probably within the week, and at that time there may be information on when elective surgeries may resume.

Q: A family I am helping has a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old and received a federal check for $2,900, not the $3,400 we expected. What do we do?

A: The first step is to double-check and makes sure this family meets the eligibility rules for that maximum amount. It sounds like the family only got credit for one qualified child, which might be because the 17-year-old falls into a gap in the tax code – neither a qualifying child nor a qualifying adult.

Each eligible adult in the household is supposed to receive $1,200, or $2,400 total for the couple. Families receive an additional $500 for each qualifying child. However, the tax code has its own rules and defines a child as not yet 17 at the end of the taxable year.

So, in essence, children who are 17, 18 or 19 and claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns may not qualify for either the $500 payment or the $1,200 payment.

However, it is possible for a child who is now 17 to qualify for the $500 payment because the Internal Revenue Service is using families’ most recent tax return to calculate the payments.

If a family filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return and claimed a child who qualifies for the child tax credit, it should still get the extra $500 in its stimulus check for that child. And, even if that child is now older than 16, families will not have to pay back the additional $500 at a later date.

The IRS has said a letter will be mailed to each recipient’s last known address within 15 days after the payment is made to provide information on how the payment was made and how to report any failure to receive the payment.

Meanwhile, the IRS is asking, if not pleading, that taxpayers not call the agency right now and instead go to its payment information center online.

Q: I didn’t get a federal check yet. Is something wrong?

A: Although the checks have arrived for many people, others, such as Social Security recipients, retirees and veterans, may still be waiting.

So don’t worry yet. As long as you meet the eligibility standards, you can still expect to receive the payment: for most taxpayers that amounts to $1,200 per individual, $2,400 for married couples and $500 per child under 17 (see above).

There are people who will get smaller checks, or none at all. If you earn more than $75,000 (or $150,000 for a couple), the payment will be reduced. And if you earn more than $99,000 (or $198,000 for a couple), you won’t be getting a check. If you and your spouse do not have valid Social Security numbers or if you can be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, you won’t get a check, either.

The first wave of checks began April 13 and were sent to eligible people who filed taxes for 2018 or 2019 and authorized direct deposit payments. Those who have not provided the IRS with direct deposit information may have to wait weeks or even months to receive a paper check.

Social Security recipients and those who receive Veterans Affairs benefits will receive their payments the same way they receive their other payments.

If you are someone who does not file a tax return, then you need to go to the IRS  portal to provide information about children in order to receive the additional $500 per child.

And if you wish to get the funds earlier by direct deposit, you can file banking information with the IRS.

Finally, you can also check the status of your funds on the IRS website.

  • The place we live in is an endless source of small mysteries. Whose idea was that? Where’d that come from? What’s up, when and why? Tell us what’s puzzling you about Maine or your local community using the form here. We’ll pick questions that have broad interest, find the answers and report back. So, got questions, Maine? We know you do.
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