Unemployment Response is Failing

Hello this is Representative Gary Drinkwater with this week’s Republican radio address.

Nearly two weeks ago the majority of Republican Legislators sent a joint letter to the Governor expressing our many concerns we have with the Department of Labor and the Department of Economic and Community Development and their response to the Governors executive orders.  To date, we have not been given the courtesy of a response to any of the concerns raised.  Collectively, House and Senate Republicans serve many municipalities throughout Maine. Our letter echoed the concerns of those we represent and they deserve an answer.

It has become painfully appa rent that the administration has struggled with the fallout from their Executive Orders addressing this pandemic. Though no one can plan for a situation of this  magnitude, more forethought should have been given to what it would look like when businesses were told to close.  Still leeway should be given to the Department of Labor.  An office that previously operated with 13 employees was suddenly expected to handle an onslaught of unemployment claims but that was six weeks ago.  Was there no discussion about the number of people that would be left without an income when this policy was implemented?

Limitations on qualifying for unemployment compensation were removed for those impacted by the government ordered shutdown.  Yet it took weeks for the administration to shift other workers to the office, hire 100 more employees, and finally start working with a call center to handle the numbers of Mainers having to file for benefits just to be able to feed their families.  

Six weeks later, citizens are still waiting on hold for hours to try to get through to the Bureau to no avail.  I called for the Bureau to move back toward paper applications in order to alleviate the log jam of phone calls, but it appears the Bureau has chosen to continue with their ineffective web portal and phone lines.

As we all remember when the paper mills closed, our Governor, who was quick to send a rapid response team to take all applications… perhaps this Governor should have given this consideration. We have learned that social distancing,  hand washing, and face masks work. 

This is creating such a backlog that thousands of individuals, between18,000 and 20,000 according to the department’s own account, have had their fact finding appointments waived in an effort to get applicants their benefits faster.  Though I am happy that these individuals will finally get the monies they need to try and support their families during this time of crisis, such drastic measures as removing accountability to expedite processing is emblematic of a Department that is lacking leadership.

Last week the Governor held a much-touted press conference where the Maine people were supposed to hear the plan for re-opening the state.  Instead what was delivered in theatrical fashion was a plan to develop a plan.  We are now being told some businesses are receiving letters that they will be allowed to open May 15th.  Again, the Governor and her administration have not bothered to share any details of their plan, or how they are to decide which businesses will be allowed to open.  This lack of transparency is concerning and undermines the trust necessary to work together.  

Like with the previous order that shuttered businesses, there appears to be no clear guiding principle as to why one business is listed as essential, but another is not, why one can open but others cannot.  Examples include big box chains versus our small mom and pop stores or some outdoor businesses but not others.  The seemingly arbitrary nature of our current policy erodes public support.  So if the Governor intends to allow some businesses to re-open we call on her administration to provide clear guidance for all our businesses rather than creating another list that appears arbitrary.  As Churchill said, “You overwhelm the people with laws and regulations and you induce a general disrespect of law.” Our small business owners can no longer sit idly by as they watch their hard work and life savings drain away waiting for their names to appear on a list.  They need leadership from this administration. 

Why do our self-employed continue to wait to be able to file for benefits?  Many have given up hope of ever being able to recover from this economic disaster and have no plans of re-opening their business again.  At a time when the leadership of Senator Susan Collins has come through with support for these individuals, why has this Governor and her administration failed.  Why is this administration struggling with implementing a program so many other states have navigated?  Even if self-employed Mainer’s are able to file at the end of this week, they will not receive benefits until the middle of May.  This is not only disheartening but frankly unacceptable.

As Mainer’s, we are compassionate and resilient.  With the help of our neighbors, friends and families, we will come through this stronger but we as a state will have to take a good, long look at our Governor and this administration.  I for one have done so and I have found them to be lacking.

Stay safe and healthy.  We will get through this together.

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