The state’s unemployment compensation system is overwhelmed as a record number of Mainers claim benefits as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

But as staggering as the numbers are – more than 100,000 claims since mid March – there is a statistic that is even more troubling. Only about a quarter of Maine workers have jobs that make them eligible for unemployment insurance if they get laid off through no fault of their own. Most workers are expected to fall back on their own savings to get them through tough financial times.

James Salomon, an architectural photographer from Portland who lost most of his work after the pandemic hit, is angry about the delayed rollout of benefits for self-employed workers. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

So it’s good news that the state Department of Labor will finally be able to start taking applications from farmers, fishermen, freelancers and other self-employed people, including those who work in the as-needed “gig economy.” Twenty other states have beaten Maine to the punch and are delivering the new benefits created by Congress as part of the $2 trillion stimulus bill. Overwhelmed processing traditional unemployment claims, Maine was slow to get the new program started, but the benefits are retroactive, so many of these workers will get much-needed support to meet their obligations and keep their heads above water.

Hopefully, this new program will run more smoothly than the traditional unemployment system, which has struggled to keep up with the crush of new claims. At a time when we desperately needed the state to get the money out the door as quickly as possible, about a third of people seeking benefits fell through trapdoors in the application process, requiring them to go months without a paycheck while they wait for fact-finding interviews. Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said last week that thousands of those claims have been expedited to relieve the bottleneck but there are still long delays for thousands of  people seeking help.

Some of these applicants are not eligible for traditional unemployment (though they may be eligible for the expanded program), while others will eventually be approved for benefits. It’s too bad that won’t happen until after they have had to miss rent payments or other bills.

The immediate goal should be getting as much money to people who are out of work as quickly as possible, with the goal of maintaining economic activity in every community. Distributing these funds too slowly could cause more damage to the economy than would erring on the side of giving benefits to people who are not technically eligible. The federal government has said it will audit the program rigorously, and fraudulent claims can be recovered then.

Once the state Labor Department is through this crisis, the state really should question why we have an unemployment insurance program that protects such a small percentage of our workforce. With so many self-employed people, we ought to have a safety net that guarantees that people won’t lose their health insurance or their homes when they lose their income because of economic upheaval. COVID-19 has exposed a real problem that has been affecting the self-employed during ordinary ups and downs, just on a smaller scale.

But in the near term, the Department of Labor’s goal should be getting money out the door quickly. As this new wave of unemployment claims hits on Friday morning, it is past time to be overwhelmed and time to deliver the support that jobless people need.

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