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New Requirements For State Unemployment Benefits Pass Legislature
04/11/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Along party lines the Maine House and Senate have opted to change the way workers receive unemployment benefits. Under LD 1725 workers who are laid off would not be able to begin collecting unemployment until they used up most of their vacation time. The bill also requires unemployed workers to widen their job search after ten weeks instead of the current 12.

Among other things the bill clarifies requirements for receiving unemployment benefits. It forces employees with more than four weeks of saved vacation to use up that time before they can begin collecting unemployment, something most other states already do. Those employees with fewer than four weeks accrued vacation could collect unemployment right away. Republican supporters say its all part of an effort to strengthen unemployment laws, get people back to meaningful employment sooner and crack down on fraud, even though unemployment fraud in Maine has one of the lowest rates in the country at less than one percent.

"We'd like to get down to zero percent fraud but I think we're doing a pretty good job in that regard and I think that just speaks to the quality of the Maine workforce," said Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Allagash). He describes himself as a regular recipient of unemployment. That's because he's a logger whose work is routinely interrupted in the spring when it's too muddy to work in the woods. Jackson himself doesn't earn vacation time in his work. And he said he's never qualified for the maximum unemployment benefit of $366 per week. But like other Democrats, Jackson opposes the bill because he perceives the changes to unemployment as a reduction in benefits that have been earned by employees.

"Vacation pay is something that you earned. Many times it's vacation pay that you earned years ago and you bankrolled for a number of different reasons," Jackson said.

He doesn't think it's fair for one employee who scrimped and saved to be forced to use that vacation to offset unemployment when another employee who didn't save vacation time collects unemployment right away. But Republican Senator Chris Rector of Thomaston has a different perspective. Rector is the chief sponsor of the bill.

"What it does is continues your pay while you're done with your job, allows you to be out there searching for work and not out just living on that more limited benefit, that 366 dollar maximum or something less than that," Rector said.

According to Rector the vacation pay trigger gives unemployed workers additional time to look for work. That's because unemployed workers will now have ten weeks instead of 12 to widen their job search outside their occupation, wage or geographic region. He said there's nothing in the legislation that takes away benefits from anyone. But Democratic Senator Phil Bartlett of Gorham disagrees. He called it "short-sighted" to shorten the time period for the unemployed to find suitable work.

"Because we don't want to just get people back to work," said Bartlett. "We want to get people back to work in stable employment, that they're going to like, that they're going to be able to stay in so they don't end up on unemployment again."

Bartlett said having someone who may have been making $20 an hour be forced to take a job making $7.50 an hour is not helping workers or accomplishing the intended goal, especially if those workers are then forced to go on state assistance. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate and rejected such arguments and narrowly passed the bill which faces additional votes.

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