There is no question, these are strange and very stressful times. For me, like most of us in Maine, it’s been another week at home, and another week of helping our friends and families navigate the greatest public health crisis any of us have ever seen. For some people, bills are piling up while little income is coming in. For others, the demands of homeschooling children while trying to work from home is taking its toll. And for many of us, there are worries about the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. I wanted to take this opportunity to let you know about some of the issues I have been hearing about and what the state is doing in response.
The issue I have heard the most about is our unemployment system. I am not going to make excuses, this pandemic has shown us that our unemployment benefit system was simply not ready for a crisis of this magnitude. Whether you are encountering system errors, waiting for application approval or, most frustrating of all, just not being able to reach anyone on the phone, I understand your frustration.
At a time when people are worried they won’t be able to afford groceries, I know that finding patience is incredibly difficult. I do want to assure you that the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) is working as hard as they can to address the unprecedented number of claims they’ve received over the past month. They have hired 100 new employees to cover the phones and they are working to get money out to qualifying individuals as soon as possible.
For those of you who are self-employed workers, independent contractors, farmers, gig economy workers or others who didn’t qualify for traditional unemployment compensation, I have good news. Starting May 1, MDOL will accept applications for these individuals under the federal pandemic unemployment assistance program. Visit the MDOL website to learn more.
All of us are worried about the toll our COVID-19 response is taking on our economy, and here in the lakes region we are especially concerned about our tourist economy. In 2018, 37 million people visited Maine. Those guests added $610 million to our state tax base and were responsible for $2.6 billion going directly to workers. Nobody knows what the tourist season this year will look like, but it will almost certainly be shorter and with fewer visitors. As we operate on a much smaller scale, our municipalities and the bars, restaurants, hotels, shops and more that rely on our visitors will be hard-pressed to come out of this crisis.
To help the overall state economy reopen as soon as it is safe to do so, Gov. Mills announced a set of guiding principles and a phased approach that will allow her, with the help of medical professionals and business owners, to facilitate our reopening. Beginning on May 1, the “Stay Healthy at Home” order will be replaced by the “Stay Safer at Home” order. This order outlines a four-stage plan to reopening Maine’s economy, opening more and more kinds of businesses each month, expanding limits on group sizes, and slowly lifting social distancing guidelines over the course of the summer. More details can be found at https://www.maine.gov/covid19/restartingmaine.
As I said at the outset, these are strange times, and I want you to know that I am here to help you as much as I can. Please continue to reach out to me for help when you need it. I am available at 207-287-1430 or Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org. Step by step and day by day, we will get through this pandemic together.
Fay is serving her second term in the Maine Legislature and represents parts of Casco, Poland and Raymond. She serves on the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.