In Maine, self-employed workers have been waiting nearly six weeks for financial help through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and are the last group to receive any financial assistance during the Covid-19 crisis. According to many who attempted to navigate a confusing ReEmployME website over the weekend, frustrations were high.
Among the biggest complaints:
Many were getting kicked out of the system multiple times while attempting to file a claim Friday into Saturday;
They were getting locked out of the application due to an error in username/password;
They were unable to reach an MDOL customer service representative by telephone.
In March, the COVID-19 crisis spurred an unprecedented amount of claims filed through Maine Department of Labor (MDOL), which overwhelmed both their staff and website systems, to the point where they had to train new staff to keep up with the demand.
Self-Employed workers include:
- Independent Contractors
- Nonprofit employees not already covered by regualr state unemployment benefits
- Gig Economy Workers
On Friday, May 1, MDOL announced the website was open to receive applications.
According to NewsCenterMaine.com, while 3,000 people were able to get through by noon Friday and successfully process a claim with thousands more expected to be processed over the weekend, hundreds of comments on every MDOL Facebook post update expressed anger and frustration over the confusing intake questions, difficulty navigating the application form, unclear messaging around expired claims, a cryptic statement stating weekly benefits of $0, and an inability to get their questions answered by the telephone helpline.
Update: According to an MDOL statement on May 7, roughly 10,500 claims were filed under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in the last week.
It appeared that MDOL was listening to the complaints with updated posts over the weekend. On a May 1 post at 11:34:
“We hear you, and see your messages and comments. While we cannot reply to them all, please know we are monitoring and are aware of the frustrations some of you are experiencing, and are working to help resolve issues popping up.”
Another post at 6:17 p.m. stated: “We urge you to be patient with the system. Claims can be filed at any time, including throughout the weekend and into next week. PUA is available until December 2020. All payments will be made retroactive to the date of loss of employment. Applications are accepted 24-hours-a-day.”
Website Design Issues
User Response to MDOL’s Website Errors
“What are we supposed to do if we did it wrong? There’s no way to edit the application, as far as I can see. why weren’t there instructions on how to fill it out before Friday?!
“Could have really used that information last Friday. There were no instructions about it anywhere online and it took me two hours to figure it out trial by error.”
From a personal standpoint, the MDOL website was far from user-friendly, and those who aren’t computer savvy will experience problems, particularly if all they have is a mobile phone to work from.
First, the website application form lacked basic instructions in the form of informational pop-ups for each intake question.
Second, the application form also seemed to be cobbled together from the general employment form, leading to confusing questions such as asking if you worked for any employer after October, 2018.
Third, if you selected an option by accident, the form would not allow you to deselect that option, prompting errors in moving forward, so you have to hit the back button to start all over again.
Fourth, due to the convoluted questions, many filers made mistakes and filed the wrong information. However, once the application was completed, there is no “edit” button.
The only recourse was to call MDOL to file an appeal, which leads back to a Catch-22 of not being able to reach a customer representative by phone.
Finally, instructions on how to confirm your email and select a Direct Deposit option were tacked on after the application was completed and required extra steps to complete.
MDOL posted on March 4, three days after unveiling the application: “ATTENTION Self-Employed: If you are self-employed and have no wages with an employer in the calendar year 2019 or 2020, you must select “NO” for Question 4. DO NOT select a state on Question 5. To deselect a state, double click on your selection to remove it.”
Already frustrated, many self-employed workers vented on the Facebook post that this information should have been provided prior to launching the application on May 1.
MDOL should have provided a step-by-step tutorial on how to navigate each page. Because they failed to do so, they have been attempting to answer common questions via Facebook posts. And, as record numbers of people reported being unable to call and get a real person on the phone, a number of Facebook groups have tried to function as a de facto resource, such as Covid-19 Small Business Group Facebook page, which took it upon themselves to try and help their fellow appliers as outlined below.
There have been so many issues with this ham-handed roll-out of the MDOL application that Mainers already stretched beyond their reasonable capacity and desperate for a simple way to receive much-needed assistance are justifiably enraged. And they have every right to be. Are you listening MDOL?
Resources To Get Answers
Here is where to get some answers to the entire process answered: https://www.maine.gov/unemployment/docs/2018/UIGuide2018.pdf
And a list of FAQs: https://www.maine.gov/unemployment/docs/2020/pua2020/puafaq.pdf
CEI also has sensible step-by-step FAQs: https://www.ceimaine.org/covid-19-resources-for-businesses/unemployment/
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org