Up to 7,400 Mainers could lose their pandemic-related federal jobless aid and may have to repay months of unemployment checks after failing to verify their previous employment with the Maine Department of Labor.

But one top labor organizer in Maine said poor communication by the state as well as technical issues have prevented some aid recipients from meeting the requirements to prove prior employment.

Mainers who have collected unemployment benefits since the beginning of the year under a federal program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance had until Wednesday to provide the Maine Department of Labor with proof that they were employed before losing their jobs as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 30 percent of the 24,000 workers who were required to verify their prior employment were retroactively denied eligibility, the department said. They have 15 days to appeal. A denied claim could mean workers have to repay the aid they received, including a $300-per-week enhanced jobless benefit.

But communication and technological issues may have prevented many people from filing the correct documentation with the state, said Andy O’Brien, communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO.

The union heard from many frustrated workers who had trouble uploading their proof of employment to the department’s online portal, did not understand the process or were notified that they had to supply documents just before the deadline, O’Brien said.

“It is widespread – we have been dealing with a lot of these issues in our employment group,” he said. “You can’t just make 7,400 people pay back thousands of dollars who can’t afford it and assume it was just fraudulent – that is not good policy.”

One applicant who did not want to be identified out of concerns it could affect her husband’s employment shared images showing that the state’s instructions have been contradictory, at least in her case.

A labor department document says that PDF files are accepted as proof of employment for a federal aid program. Courtesy photo

An official document from the labor department says proof of employment could be submitted as a PDF, or “portable document format.” But after submitting it, she received a follow-up email from the state saying her PDF documents were not acceptable as proof.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was established by Congress last year in response to a wave of joblessness caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The program covers workers who do not qualify for state unemployment insurance, such as independent contractors, business owners and others.

A follow-up email to an aid recipient saying PDF files are not accepted as proof of prior employment, contradicting the stated policy. Courtesy photo

Those workers were required to provide proof of employment last year, a rule updated in a December relief package.

The labor department said it notified aid recipients of the requirement by mail in May, three months before the deadline. It sent repeated reminders through claimants’ online unemployment account and another letter by mail two weeks ago, department spokesperson Jessica Picard said.

Some of the denied claimants may have committed fraud, but others, especially those who later returned to work and no longer are receiving aid, may have simply missed the state’s notifications.

“Unfortunately, legitimate claimants sometimes don’t respond to requests for information from the department, especially if they are no longer claiming benefits,” Picard said. “We already have affected claimants contacting us asking how to submit their documentation at this time.”

It is unclear how many workers who were denied eligibility failed to submit any documentation, or how many submitted the information incorrectly and did not fix it. Picard said the department did not have that information available, but that some people did have trouble uploading their documents.

“(There) were instances of claimants submitting documents that were not accepted for various reasons, such as it not being readable, or documents not being from the correct year,” she said. “They would then have the opportunity to resubmit.”

Tens of thousands of Maine workers received benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The department received nearly 300,000 benefit claims in the two weeks after the program was set up last May.

As of last week, there were almost 9,700 continuing weekly claims filed under the federal program. It was designed to cover formerly self-employed or contract workers in addition to those who are unemployed because they are sick with COVID-19, taking care of someone who is sick, or in quarantine.

It also serves as a catch-all for unemployed residents who are unable to work for other reasons because of the pandemic but do not qualify for state unemployment benefits, which are funded through employer payroll taxes.

The program, along with other federal extended unemployment benefits and the increased jobless payments, are set to end permanently next month.


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