Many local residents say the state's unemployment system is leaving them in limbo as they seek aid while out of work from closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Maine Department of Labor has been inundated with claims for the past seven weeks. For the week ending March 14, for example, only 634 new claims for unemployment benefits were submitted. Since then, more than 115,000 claims have been received.

Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman told a Legislative Committee May 6 that the number of claims in the past seven weeks are more than the past three years combined.

In addition, the department has had to administer new federal programs created to deal with the pandemic and had to wait for rules from the federal government, including programs that provide aid to self-employed people and others who were not previously covered by unemployment compensation, Fortman told legislators.

The Labor commissioner said at the May 6 online meeting of the Legislature's Labor and Housing Committee that since March 15 the Department has paid out more than $240 million in benefits to tens of thousands of Mainers.

She said, for example, when the pandemic unemployment assistance program was launched May 1, there were 3,000 claims filed in the first four hours.

She acknowledged, however, that there have been problems for some people seeking aid. Fortman said part of the problem is that the department has been understaffed and now is facing an unprecedented demand for services. The department is working with L.L. Bean which is helping to hire and train another 138 employees to respond to the claims.

Fortman said the unemployment division has about half the employees it had eight years ago.

The hearing was marked by a partisan divide.

State Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, said despite the efforts of the staff, the response by the administration has been an utter failure and completely unacceptable with many people still receiving no money after seven weeks.

State Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, pointed out that the current computer system was installed by the administration of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and that there were numerous criticisms of the system by users in 2017 and 2018.

Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Bradley, responded critically.

"How predictable of you to blame this mess on Paul LePage," Lockman said.

He said that Democratic Gov. Janet Mills decision to shut down every restaurant with no notice left tens of thousands of people out of work, leading to the flood of unemployment applications.

State Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, praised the Mills' administration response to the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing out how serious the outbreak was only 35 minutes south in Massachusetts. Lawrence said he heard from many constituents who work in New Hampshire and Massachusetts who say they have faced similar problems as is being experienced in Maine.

The Courier-Gazette/VillageSoup sought feedback from people about their experiences dealing with the unemployment system. The responses were mainly ones voicing frustration over the inability to navigate the unemployment system.

While the state has yet to release claims by county, if Knox County's share of the numbers of unemployment claims is the same as its share of the overall state labor force, that would mean about 3,200 Knox County residents have become unemployed in the past seven weeks.

Christine Buckley, owner and managing director at Christine's Framing Gallery, said she literally tried to reach the Labor Department hundreds of times a day with no success.

"I have emailed them… I have tried to get information through the Career Center and other government avenues. I have emailed Janet Mills. I am writing to our state representatives as we speak. This is unjust," Buckley said.

Buckley, 56, said she has spent the past 35 years taking a lot of risks and working an insane amount of hours building her business. Last October, she moved her business from her home to a retail location in Camden.

"I hired a full-time employee and business was booming," she said. "With this horrible pandemic, I had to lay off my employee, and I’ve been virtually out of work myself for weeks because of the shut down."

Her employee is collecting unemployment, including collecting $600 per week of federal unemployment. Buckley said as a self-employed person she had to wait to May 1 to apply for unemployment.

"I followed through the process but have heard nothing. I have received no money. And I can never get through to a person at the MDOL to ask what’s going on," the businesswoman said.

Buckley applied for a federal financial pandemic business assistance through the Small Business Administration and applied for the economic injury disaster loan about five minutes after the loan process opened. She said she has heard nothing, has been unable to talk to anyone, and received no money.

She also applied for money through the federal paycheck protection program through her local bank within minutes after it became available to self-employed people and was told two weeks later that the program had run out of money before her application was considered.

Two weeks later, she received a little less than half of what she should have received.

"I am now two months behind in my fixed expenses for both my home and my business location…. including rent/mortgage, electric, fuel, phone, insurances, dues, leases and two business loans. I am a single mother with three dependent children at home," she said.

Buckley said she will not be able to afford to hire back any employees if her business survives the shutdown and will have to return to working an insane amount of hours.

"This pandemic should not break me. Big companies are getting millions of dollars in aid. I am still begging for crumbs from our state and federal governments. It is wrong that all my hard work was for nothing," she said.

Jennifer Fitzgerald of Rockland was laid off from her job as a cab driver on March 26 because of the outbreak's impact.

Fitzgerald said she has tried calling and sent daily emails without getting any help and still no unemployment. She said her account online states she is disqualified from "2016 through 2099."

"I have a 13-year-old. No income," Fitzgerald said.

Shlomit Auciello is a restaurant worker who works seasonally at The Salty Owl cafe in Owls Head since May 2018.

The Rockland woman said she was looking forward to returning for the 2020 season.

"I love my job and miss it enormously. It's great to use skills I have to serve other people, and the young couple I work for are wonderful employers," Auciello said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the business to scale back to curbside service and that staff may not be hired back this season.

She said she is still eligible for unemployment but her benefits ran out in early April with a final payment of $50 April 13. On April 17, she received $1,080 for two weeks of the federal stimulus, retroactive to the start of that program and minus income taxes.

She reached out to the Maine Department of Labor to find out about extended benefits when she learned her job would not be here this year. Auciello said she is pretty good at finding things on the internet, but there has been very little information on the Labor Department website about the extended benefits that are part of the CARES act.

She said in the first three weeks, she called the Labor Department's unemployment number about 100 times each week, both on her appointed day (Monday) and on Thursday and Friday, as advised by the department.

On April 14, she sent a message through the department's contact form, asking how to file for an extension. She received a case number in an automated email message, and has heard nothing since that time.

Auciello said she reached out to her federal and state representatives and that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and state Sen. Dave Miramant of Camden were the most responsive.

"Sen. Miramant has stayed in touch throughout, updating me as he learns about changes," she said.

Only last week, she said the Labor Department website changed to make it clear that she should continue to file her weekly certifications of her status as unemployed.

"So I continue to wait, to apply for jobs, and to wish I was working hard at the job that I thought I'd be doing before all this happened." she said. "DOL is challenged by a multi-layered structure that does not communicate well. At a time when so much is unknown, it would be helpful to have clear guidance."

Lyn Donovan of Camden owns and operates Coastal Maine Art Workshops which brings in well-known instructors to teach five-day painting classes from July through October in Rockland and Belfast. She said in the 14 years she has run the program it has put close to $1.5 million into the local economy. She said she anticipated having more than 300 students this year.

She said her income ends when the final class of the season is filled and begins again the following July 1 when classes resume.

Because of the virus, registrations came to a halt.

She said she will be receiving no business income until July 2021 and receives only a small amount of Social Security.

Donovan described numerous attempts to file an application online but with no success as the application required questions that were not relevant to her situation and that if she made a change, it put her back to the beginning. She said she also unsuccessfully tried to contact someone by telephone but was unable.

"I’m astounded that Maine did not better prepare for this…some wheels should turn fast. Sole proprietors are generally dependent on cash flow to pay bills; this was a very long wait to then try a system that didn’t work. DHHS systems went down this week as well…I expect we can do better," Donovan said.

But not all the experiences have been negative.

Rep. Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport, said at the May 6 hearing that he was able to easily navigate the online system. He said, however, that constituents have said to him that the problem they have had has been the inability to reach someone by telephones to answer questions.

The Maine AFL-CIO and Maine Equal Justice issued a statement May 11, applauding the Maine Department of Labor and its staff for "delivering much needed unemployment benefits this week to more than 15,000 gig employees, self-employed individuals, farmers, fishermen and others who have been out of work due to COVID-19, but ineligible for regular unemployment. By launching the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, MDOL is ensuring these Mainers will have a life line when they need it most."

Lorie Costigan of Glendarragh Farm Lavender in Appleton with a retail shop in Camden, said being closed for more than a month has had an impact.

Costigan said when the portal opened for self employed people it took her two times (once the day after it opened and once on Monday) to file. She received a response within two days.

Costigan said what helped her was the series of screenshots Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham posted on how to file from an application filed by another representative.

She said she has been helped previously by the Department of Labor. Once when Down East magazine had a series of layoffs she was helped by a program whereby if you were planning a business you could waive the job search and work on a business plan.

"It enabled me to attend classes with the Department of Agriculture and do research for 15 to 20 weeks. It was a huge springboard in a time of need and I felt more than repaid me for what had been contributed in my name. I see the same now, as an employer," Costigan said.