The number of Maine jobless claims that have been canceled for being fraudulent skyrocketed past 50,000 last week and the state Department of Labor imposed new deadlines for people receiving benefits to search for new jobs.

Last week, the total number of initial and continuing unemployment claims in Maine fell to its lowest point in more than a month as the department canceled thousands more fraudulent claims.

In a briefing to lawmakers Thursday, state Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman acknowledged that some rightful claimants are still not receiving benefits, but she said the unemployment office has delivered payments in the vast majority of cases.

“I am well aware that there are Maine people who are not receiving their benefits – we are working diligently to get benefits to those people,” she said.

Maine is paying about 80 percent of its claims, Fortman said, a much higher proportion than some other states including Ohio, which is paying 50 percent, and Washington, which is paying about 58 percent.

“The pandemic is impacting every single state, every single unemployment program,” she said. “We are all responding to the challenges in front of us and we think it is important to say how we stack up.”

Thursday’s online briefing was not open to the public. News outlets were given two hours’ notice to attend but were not allowed to ask questions. Fortman said four such briefings were held in April, and that she would provide weekly Thursday briefings going forward.

About 4,850 people filed initial unemployment claims last week, adding to the more than 145,000 workers who have claimed jobless benefits since mid-March. Last week’s initial claims were the lowest since the pandemic triggered mass unemployment.

The number of people collecting weekly unemployment benefits is falling, too, according to the state’s latest figures. Roughly 90,500 continuing claims for state and federal benefits were filed last week, almost 30 percent lower than weekly claims filed in mid-May, before widespread fraud inflated the state’s statistics.

While claims are falling from a peak in April, they remain far above pre-pandemic levels. This week’s claims will be “10 times higher” than just 13 weeks ago, Fortman told lawmakers.

As more Maine businesses are able to reopen to customers, the state is reasserting normal unemployment rules that require those claiming benefits to look for a new job.

That requirement was suspended in March, in reaction to the public health emergency, business closures and the statewide stay-at-home order, Fortman said.

“Having people search for work didn’t make sense,” she said.

Starting July 11, workers who have lost their jobs will have to file documentation that they looked for a job as part of their weekly benefit claim. Workers who were temporarily laid off but expect to return to their employer have until Aug. 8 before they are required to begin looking for work again.

“We want to make sure people start thinking about how they reengage with the economy and don’t wind up in a situation where they have exhausted all their unemployment benefits and don’t have a job at the end of it,” Fortman said.

At present, there are 415 fact-finding interviews scheduled for workers who refused an offer to return to work, the department said.

A massive hiring push is underway to fill the ranks of the state’s Bureau of Unemployment Compensation. Qualified staff is the most significant bottleneck the agency faces getting benefits to people, Fortman told lawmakers.

The agency is hiring for dozens of positions, including eligibility specialists, claims adjudicators, fraud investigators, accounting specialists and hearing officers. It started the pandemic with 13 staff members and has grown to more than 100. The goal is to bring that workforce up to 273 people, Fortman said.

The department receives about 2,000 calls a day for assistance with unemployment claims. While communication has improved, in that people can get through to staff on the phone, wait times are roughly 45 minutes to reach a representative for basic assistance, Fortman said.

In the midst of a historic wave of unemployment, the department also has contended with pervasive benefit fraud.

It has received more than 21,400 reports from individuals and businesses that stolen personal information was used to file a false unemployment claim. State and federal officials suspect that organized criminal groups using stolen information from previous data breaches are behind the fraud.

Some of the fraud reports are duplicates because both an employee and their employer flagged the claim, the department said.

Last week, Maine canceled 3,500 initial claims and 8,400 weekly certifications, also known as continuing claims, for being fraudulent.

Nearly 20,000 initial claims and 36,000 weekly certifications have been canceled for being fraudulent since the problem emerged in late May. The amount of money Maine may have lost to fraud is still under investigation, department spokeswoman Jessica Picard said.

In response to the scope of the fraud, the department reinstated a 10- to 14-day vetting period between filing an initial claim and receiving benefits.

It also put a hold on thousands of suspected fraudulent claims. That meant those who filed legitimate claims were unable to get benefits until they verified their identity by providing the department with two forms of identification, including one photo ID.

The department believes by the end of the week it will have processed 13,000 verification emails it has received to date, Fortman said.

Nationally, about 1.5 million initial claims for U.S. unemployment benefits were filed last week, The Associated Press reported. That’s a historically high number, even as the economy increasingly reopens and employers bring people back to work.

Even with the May hiring gain, nearly 21 million people are officially classified as unemployed, according to the AP. Economists estimate that 32.5 million people are out of work. That figure includes people the government said had been erroneously categorized as employed in May and those who lost jobs but didn’t look for new ones.

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