Republicans Want to Fix Flawed Unemployment, Welfare Systems, But Fate of Bills Lies With Democratic Leaders


Maine Senate Republicans launched an initiative on Wednesday to stabilize the sagging labor market in the state while taking aim at abuses of the welfare system. Comprised of eight bills, the reform plan is an effort to help recipients avoid a “welfare cliff” they otherwise face when benefits run out, but no progress has been made in finding employment.

Right now the legislature is divided between “two priorities – welfare checks or paychecks,” Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), author of five of the eight inter-related bills in the package, said at the press conference.

Democratic leaders haven’t signalled yet whether they’re interested in making changes in Maine’s sprawling welfare programs, but getting their support, and Gov. Janet Mills’, will be key to any successful legislative push. Historically, Democrats have opposed efforts to crack down on welfare fraud, waste, and abuse, or to restrict or limit the programs.

At this point in the legislative session, Democratic leaders have mostly focused on efforts to mandate paid family and medical leave for Maine-based businesses.

Maine’s labor participation rate has fallen from 62.5% to 57.9% – nearly five points – since 2019, when Mills’ administration expanded MaineCare, Republicans explained, adding that today it is even lower than the prior period of forced shutdowns in April 2020.

Senators pointed the increased enrollment in MaineCare at a faster rate than unemployment, which President Biden said in his annual address to the nation last night was falling to record lows, as a metric of how the system is becoming increasingly prone to abuse and liable to become unaffordable for the state.

Senate Republican Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) said the expansion of benefits in recent years has turned programs intended to provide temporary assistance to those out of work “from a safety net into a hammock.”

“Our priority now is getting people out of poverty and onto a path of self-sufficiency,” Stewart continued, adding “it’s time to make sure the government isn’t getting in the way of that path.”

One requirement for receiving unemployment and welfare benefits is a demonstration that the recipient is actively applying for work. However, due to the pandemic, the federal government waived the work requirement rules for most benefit programs.

Republicans are looking to restore those work requirements for welfare benefits, which means they are calling on Mills to refrain from seeking a waiver.

Unemployment benefits already have an existing work search requirement, but a rising trend of job applicants “ghosting” their prospective employers has created a de facto waiver.

When it comes time for a scheduled interview, unemployment benefit recipients are not showing up. They get to claim they sought a job, which allows them to continue receiving the benefit, but the employer is out time and money. Under the current system, employers have a hard time telling the state when they’ve been ghosted. All of this is further frustrating the labor crunch and suggesting recipients are reporting to the state that they’re applying for jobs but then failing to follow through, Sen. Stacey Guerin (R-Penobscot) said.

“Employers statewide are complaining to me about this,” Guerin recounted. “I’m a small business owner myself and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to the office for an interview and had the applicant not show up.”

Business leaders in the state like the recent past CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce Dana Connors have said that the worsening labor shortage is holding the state’s economy back. That’s another problem lawmakers hope their efforts might help address.

Among the thinking points the Senate Republicans suggested was indexing unemployment benefit to market conditions, or as Sen. Stewart put it, “what’s actually happening in the real world.”

Republicans distributed the briefing document below to members of the media outlining their legislative agenda, bill titles, and some statistic they say support their legislative priorities.


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