Controversy, allegations of bias and fraud, audits and investigations have hovered over Maine's unemployment claims process for much of the year.
But Lori Baillargeon's story is the story of someone who's done all the right things. When Baillargeon lost her job, she applied for unemployment. She got approved, and almost immediately, began visiting a Maine Career Center office for help with her job search, "'cause that's what unemployment asked you to do," she says. "I kinda fell into this class."
Since the summer, Baillargeon has been driving from her home in Orland, two days a week, to Bangor. She's taking a health information technology course. She spent the previous 15 years working as a caregiver for adults with disabilities.
"I've done the personal care for so long. Now I want to be the medical secretary, working medical billing, coding, things like that," she says.
Health IT is hot. Jobs in the field pay well. And they're expected to increase by more than 30 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to a Georgetown University study.
Going in this direction was big step outside Baillargeon's comfort zone. Prior to taking the class, she'd never even turned on a computer. "I took a little tutorial on how to use the mouse! I didn't know how to do any of that, and now I'm getting ready to take a certification test for Microsoft Office," she says.
"But you've got the highest grades in the class," says her husband, Todd.
"Not the highest," she responds, "but I'm right up there."
It's mid-December, a Monday night, Christmas is right around the corner, the decorations are up. So's the tree and Baillargeon and her husband, Todd, are fixing dinner in the kitchen. A fire roars away in the woodstove.
Today is Todd's 47th birthday, but the celebration is muted. A few weeks ago, a letter came from the Maine Department of Labor: Lori's unemployment benefits are being cancelled, effective Dec. 28.
"I've already sent in my application for dislocated workers, so they have that on file," she says. "And hopefully, there won't be a lapse in my pay."
If Baillargeon gets approved, Dislocated Worker Benefits could give her another six months of assistance. But she doesn't know if it would match the $299 a week she's been getting, after taxes, on unemployment.
Todd Baillargeon works for American Concrete, but his hours drop off during the winter. An unaddressed envelope to Toyota Financial Services, the late payment for Todd's truck, sits on a table. The cell phone bill has been late too. And dinners out are a thing of the past, at least until summer, when Todd goes back to working 60 to 70 hours a week.
"I'll get out of work in the summertime and I'll go out and I'll cut wood," he says. "On the weekends we'll haul firewood - you know what I'm saying? - in my little four cylinder pick-up truck, which takes a long time to get a cord to somebody."
The loss of Lori's unemployment benefits, and the extra financial strain it's likely to cause, has her rethinking the immediate future.
Three or four hundred dollars extra - I mean, for us to go without that one week in February, that's not going to be good, you know?" she says. "That's why I just keep debating: Do I stick wth this class and try so hard to get this certification?"
"Yeah you do," her husband interjects.
"I know you say that but...," she says, "or go get a job?"
Being unemployed has been a blow to Baillargeon's self esteem. She says she grew up with a strong work ethic, instilled in her by her parents, especially her mom, who worked for many years in the old chicken processing plants in Belfast.
Baillargeon's health IT class is about to switch to a nighttime schedule and she isn't sure she could work full-time and continue the course. She's says she's seen some nearby job listings for Certified Nurse Assistant positions and has thought about applying.
The difficult decisions she faces will take on added urgency on Dec. 28, when her unemployment runs out.