I have promised so many of my friends, my constituents, my own staff—most of whom have been placed on furlough this week—that I would update you on everything I can, as quickly and as often as I can. So I’m here in my kitchen this morning at 6am (who can sleep past 5am anyway these days?) to give you an update.
While there is a lot of information below, the most important piece I hope you take away is to have some patience as we adapt to this new world.
This is what I know as of Wednesday, March 18 at 5:57am. It is not going to answer every question you have. It doesn’t answer every question I have. Not by a long shot. But, it is the best we can do. I am trying to learn patience. I’m afraid we’re all going to learn a lot of patience in the next few weeks. It is important to make sure we pause and verify our sources of information and don’t jump to conclusions as there will be some who unfortunately try to take advantage of people during this time. My promise is that I will also verify my sources and try to give you the best information I have as of the time I write.
Last night, the Maine legislature exacted a sweeping package of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This update focuses on those who are or will be economically impacted by COVID-19. If you are looking for information about our public health response, please see the Maine CDC’s website, or my personal favorite, Dr. Dora Anne Mills’s Facebook updates. Dr. Mills is the Chief Health Improvement Officer at Maine Health.
So what did we do?
Emergency Powers for the Governor
I think the most important part of last night’s package was language to give Governor Janet Mills broad authority to take necessary action to respond to the pandemic without the need for additional legislative approval. She now has powers, for the duration of this emergency, to enact even more relief programs and spending than we specifically enacted last night. That’s important. It means that the information I give here will likely be just the tip of the spear to our state government’s response, it is not the final word. She will likely act over the coming days and weeks to deploy further state dollars where they are most needed. If the Federal government acts to further loosen rules and send more money, I am confident that the Mills administration will deploy it well and urgently.
Last night, we passed a law temporarily loosening many of the restrictions around unemployment insurance compensation eligibility. The new law revises eligibility standards to cover the following situations that so many of us find ourselves in or will soon find ourselves in:
1) An employer temporarily ceases operation (partially or fully) due to COVID-19
2) An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work once the quarantine is over
3) An individual leaves employment due to risk of exposure or infection
4) An individual leaves employment to care for a family member
The law also provides that the usual one-week waiting period for benefits is waived, and that employers “experience rating” will not be negatively impacted by employees collecting unemployment. In other words, an employer’s unemployment insurance rate will not go up in the future because of these claims.
We have received some guidance on how this law will be interpreted, and I expect to receive more today or tomorrow.
· You may be eligible for unemployment insurance if you are on a temporary, unpaid leave of absence, if you are expected to return to your job at the end of the leave, and provided you remain able and available to work for your employer and make sure that your employer has your current contact information.
· If your employer plans to return you to your job when they resume operations, and provided you remain able and available to work for them, you will be able to collect unemployment benefits without seeking other work.
· If a business closes permanently or lays you off permanently, you also may be eligible and should apply.
Why do I say you “may” be eligible? Because there are a bunch of factors that go into eligibility. We loosened a bunch of those factors last night, but there may be further loosening to come in the next few days. Do not assume you are ineligible. Don’t ask on Facebook if you are eligible or ineligible. Just apply.
One more important note from someone who loves to research the law and find all the answers myself. Do NOT read the frequently asked questions that are currently on the Department of Labor’s website (as of 6:14am on Wednesday, March 18). Do not try to research the rules online. They reflect the reality last week. They do not reflect the reality this morning or a few days from now. So instead of trying to research all the answers, just apply. The frequently asked questions will be updated soon, but updating websites takes time and the staff at the Department of Labor are human beings who are working hard to implement the sweeping changes that they have devised, researched, built bipartisan support for, written into statutory language, and had enacted all in the span of just 4 days. It’s so hard not to have all the answers in black and white when we wake up this morning, but it’s the reality. Also, the answers you find on the site might be far more negative than the reality you’ll experience, so just apply.
The moral of the story is: if you are out of work and not getting paid as you normally would, apply for unemployment. If you were put on furlough or laid off this week, apply this week. Go here to do it: https://reemployme.maine.gov/accessme/faces/login/login.xhtml
[Note that the online system will be down for maintenance and updating for 7 hours on Thursday night (starting at 7:30pm on Thursday). Do not panic. Just apply at a different time.]
Health Insurance During a Layoff/Furlough
The changes we made last night will also allow employers to continue paying benefits (health insurance, etc.) on behalf of employees without it hurting employees’ eligibility for unemployment benefits. This continuation of health benefits is an option for employers, but it is not required. Many businesses won’t be able to afford to keep paying benefits. (And some folks, of course, didn’t have them in the first place because… America. That’s an issue to resolve in a different time when this immediate crisis has passed.) If you lost your health insurance in your layoff or didn’t have it to begin with, you may be eligible for MaineCare. The rules for MaineCare eligibility and food assistance will also likely be loosened in the coming days so do NOT read through all the rules on the website and try to figure out if you’re eligible. Just apply. You can apply here: https://www.maine.gov/benefits/account/login.html
Zero Interest Consumer Loans
We also put in place last night a consumer loan program that will be offered through local banks and credit unions, with loans backed by the state. Mainers who have been economically impacted by the pandemic can obtain zero interest personal loans, of up to $5,000 per month for up to three months. Your creditworthiness (i.e. if you currently have a job or not) cannot be factored into your eligibility for these loans. Interest won’t be charged until after a grace period that will last longer than the current crisis. Your loan amount may be reduced by the amount of unemployment you are eligible for, but you can absolutely apply for both unemployment and the loan program. Governor worked with banks and credit unions to set this up – they want to help. It may take them a couple of days to set their programs up. Bank and credit union employees may also be working from home and branches may be shut, so it may be best to reach out on-line or by phone. Remember, this just became law about 9 hours ago, so it may not be fully implemented today and not every bank employee may have been briefed on it. Don’t get discouraged if the program isn’t in place today, that doesn’t mean that it won’t be available next week.
We also authorized Governor Mills to prohibit utilities from terminating residential electric and water service for non-payment. The Maine PUC has already prohibited a number of utilities from taking any disconnection action during this time.
Licenses and Registrations
There were several provisions in last night’s statute that extend the deadlines for or change the rules for renewing licensing and registrations (auto registrations, liquor licenses, professional licenses, dog licenses, etc.). The provisions allow a lot of flexibility in regulation and licenses during the crisis. Again, the rules here will likely continue to evolve and get more flexible in the days and weeks to come.
Those of us in the hospitality or retail world who depend on people socializing and traveling to Maine know that the things I just described are important, but not enough. I carried that message to the State House yesterday, and I will continue to advocate for you. We gave the Governor sweeping powers to address this crisis, so more state government action can and will be rolled out to provide relief. We also really need the Federal government to step in.
In the coming days, be patient and kind. I know it’s so hard. Believe me. I am right there with you all. But, people who work in state government (or for local banks) are humans – your fellow Mainers – who are also being impacted by this crisis in their own personal lives. Advocate for what you need but try not to get too frustrated if websites crash or applications ask for things that don’t seem relevant today. The application was likely designed for last week’s world, rather than this week’s reality.
Getting all the solutions in place in a matter of days is going to be impossible. Instead, we’ll need to chip away at it. I ask that if you’re having trouble with Maine state government, you reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can help communicate with the right people and try to get rules changed, and pass along information about the specific unmet needs that we need to address.
Be well. Take care of each other. I will write again soon.