Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman in Augusta. Fortman said recently that the department has dealt with the processes that led to the freezing of a Palermo couple’s bank account. Portland Press Herald/Shawn Patrick Ouellette file

The Maine Department of Labor has adjusted its processes that led to a Palermo couple’s bank account being frozen for over a week and has identified 12 similar cases, the department’s commissioner said Wednesday.

Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a phone interview that the identified cases involved individuals who applied for benefits at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The problem involving possible fraud happened when the department “ramped up our recovery efforts,” Fortman said.

“That is the piece we are reevaluating and looking at, and it was the recovery effort that triggered this for those individuals,” she said.

The Palermo couple’s problem stemmed from an unemployment claim mix-up that resulted in a freeze being put on their joint bank account at the KeyBank branch in Waterville.

Kim Crouse, 49, was laid off in March 2020 by the Huhtamaki manufacturing facility in Waterville but returned to work in April. A handwritten note from Crouse’s employer stating Crouse had been temporarily laid off could not be read by the Maine Department of Labor’s claims system, but a checkmark saying she was working could, which ultimately resulted in the bank account being frozen for eight days.

Although the department said the issue is fixed, Crouse said Tuesday that she has not heard from anyone at the department.

“I haven’t received any correspondence through the state,” Crouse said. “Crickets. I don’t know if it’s still ongoing. … Nobody has called me, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s still out there.”

The department said last week that there weren’t enough department staff last spring to manually review the surge in claims when many workers were laid off across the state at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rick and Kim Crouse stand outside their home Saturday in Palermo. Because of a mix-up with the state’s unemployment system, their bank account was mistakenly frozen for eight days. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Fortman said the department saw approximately 650 claims per week at the outset of the pandemic. Two weeks later, 75,000 claims came through the system. Included in the claims was unprecedented “criminal activity.” Fortman said the state has caught nearly $480 million in fraudulent claims.

When claimants file for unemployment, an automated form is sent to their employers. The employers put down the reason for the separation from the employee. The computer system in place was not designed to read handwritten text, which was the problem in the Crouses’ situation.

Nonfraudulent unemployment collection problems usually stem from when a person does not stop collecting unemployment for the first week back to work while they await their first paycheck.

“Those were the kinds of situations our system was designed to react to,” Fortman said. “We’ve had to revise how we are handling claims.”

The department launched a new review process and also addressed the 12 cases similar to the Crouses’. The department turned off an automated process that canceled some claims based on the employer’s electronic form responses. Now, an alternative automated process will still withhold claims, but there is a window for a claimant to provide proof of identity before any action is taken with their financial institution.

“We’re continuing to refine it as we learn more about the fraud schemes being used, but that process was put in place later in the summer, and that is the process we are currently using,” Fortman said. “We will continue to change and enhance those processes moving forward, and we just received a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for recovering money from fraudulent claims.”

Issues with the state’s unemployment system began when it launched in December 2017. Complaints about the system took hold in early 2018. Early in the pandemic, “serious problems” arose with the system as the unemployment rate across the state ticked up.

But problems continue.

Edward Grignon, 61, of Hartland, got laid off from Cianbro the last week of January. He tried to sign up for unemployment online, but he said his account was blocked. He was able to sign up over the phone, but went back to work the next week. The following week, he got laid off again. His account was blocked and he sent in two forms of identification, including a copy of property taxes.

The next time he called, Grignon was connected with a call center in Mississippi. He was nervous about talking to someone in another state, so he got a number for someone in Augusta. The person he called in Augusta said they were unsure of anyone in Mississippi. After getting hung up on, Grignon went to the Hinckley CareerCenter to verify his information.

Four weeks later, Grignon is now back to work. He believes he is owed three weeks of unemployment.

“Now they keep saying that they haven’t had time to review the information I sent them,” Grignon said. “Listen, I’m not starving. My bills are in shape, but how about the people that are living week to week? I’m not doing this because I need the money; I’m doing it because there’s a damned problem.”

The Department of Labor is contracted with Maine-based call center SaviLinx. Their relationship began March 27, 2020, during the initial unemployment claim surge. SaviLinx, which supplies 100 call center members, uses Maine workers and remote workers in other states.

The department asks anyone impacted to email [email protected] with the subject line “Bank Account Issue.” Inquiries must include a name, residence and year of birth.

“It is both really infuriating that legitimate claimants are being caught up in this,” Fortman said. “It’s also heartbreaking that this has happened to Maine people.”

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