Labor

Maine launches ‘Back to Work’ program while leaving federal pandemic unemployment benefits in place

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On June 14, Gov. Mills announced a program to incentivize unemployed Mainers to return to work. Called “Back to Work,” the first-come, first-serve program will offer employers a one-time $1,500 payment for eligible employees who begin work between June 15 and June 30, or a one-time $1,000 payment for eligible employees who start work in July. 

The Back to Work program will be paid for with $10 million in federal funds and will be administered by the Maine Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).

To be eligible for the program, employees must have received unemployment compensation for the week ending May 29, 2021; accept a full-time job that pays less than $25 an hour; remain employed in that position for at least eight consecutive weeks; and not receive unemployment compensation during that eight week period.

Employers whose workers qualify for the program will be able to log onto an online portal hosted by the DOL and confirm the start dates of their eligible employees. After the eight week period has elapsed, the incentive will be issued to the employer, who will then pass it on to their qualifying employees.

Though Maine’s unemployment numbers have improved since March 2020, when Gov. Mills’ stay at home order closed businesses and caused unemployment claims to spike, the most recent available data from the DOL shows a slight uptick in initial claims. For the week ending June 5, 2021, the DOL reported 1,637 initial jobless claims and a four-week average of 1,306 claims, a net change of 19.4% from the previous week. For the week ending May 29, 2021, the DOL reported 1,371 initial claims and a four-week average of 1,221 claims.

Between March 15, 2020 and June 5, 2021, DOL reports it paid out $2.2 billion in federal and state unemployment benefits, with $1.7 billion being paid through federal unemployment programs. DOL estimates it has handled 111,900 initial claims for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. 

Through September 4, 2021, many claimants can work part-time and still receive the weekly $300 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which comes on top of the state benefits for which claimants qualify.

Critics of these federal programs argue the federal unemployment benefits incentivize people to stay home rather than return to the workforce. 

Mills has announced no plan to withdraw Maine from participation in the FPUC program before it expires in September. The DOL did not return a request for comment.

Twenty-five states have ended their participation in the FPUC program. Gov. Larry Hogan announced on June 1 that Maryland will pull out of the program effective July 3. The state joined Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming in withdrawing from the program. 

Effective June 12, Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri will be the first states where unemployment claimants will stop receiving benefits. 

Many of these states are also offering financial incentives for those who return to work.

Arizona is offering up to $2,000 for those who return to work between May 13 and September 6 and work at least eight 40-hour weeks in their first 10 weeks of employment at a job that pays $25 or less.

Montana is offering a $1,200 bonus to people who claimed unemployment as of May 4, have accepted a job and have worked for four weeks.

New Hampshire is offering up to $1,000 for those who return beginning May 18, work eight consecutive weeks, and earn $25 or less per hour.

Oklahoma is offering $1,200 to the first 20,000 unemployed people who take a job between May 17 and September 4 and work 32 hours for six consecutive weeks.

Michigan is using the $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit to incentivize people to return to the workforce. At a press conference held June 14, Gov. Whitmer announced her intent to give the $300 per week federal unemployment benefit to employees who return to their previous jobs by September 4. 

But other states are offering back-to-work plans while still participating in the FPUC program. 

Colorado is offering up to $1,600 for those who returned to work full time in May and don’t file for unemployment benefits in an eight-week period.

Through the end of 2021, Connecticut will pay up to $1,000 to eligible residents who accept a job and work eight consecutive weeks. 

A bill before the New York State Senate would offer $1,200 to qualified employees who return to work for at least four weeks.

A bill being considered by the North Carolina State Senate would offer a bonus up to $1,500 to someone who takes a job within a 30-day period defined within the legislation.

Maine’s Back to Work program puts it in this latter category of states offering employment incentives and continuing to participate in the FPUC program. The $1,500 reward it offers employees who return to work by June 30 is also one of the largest incentives being offered by states that fall into this category.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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