As jobless rate hits nearly 18 percent, Unemployment Insurance is a critical tool to limit coronavirus transmission

At least 14.5 percent of the state’s workforce has lost their jobs since March 15, as Mainers take the necessary steps to limit transmission of the coronavirus by drastically reducing the person-to-person contact necessary for normal economic activity.

On Thursday, the Maine Department of Labor announced that 11,561 Mainers had filed new unemployment claims in the week ending April 18. More than 101,000 Mainers have filed for unemployment over five weeks, putting the state unemployment rate at nearly 18 percent

As the coronavirus crisis continues to disrupt our daily lives, including many Mainers’ ability to work, we need to ensure everyone can still make ends meet. The unemployment system is a mission-critical tool to limit the spread of coronavirus by making it possible for out-of-work Mainers to stay home and limit transmission while still being able to cover the basics.

Last week, the Maine Department of Labor made the first distribution of additional benefits through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides an extra $600 to every claimant. That money is already helping working Mainers pay their rent and utilities, keep food in the refrigerator, and buy school supplies for kids who are now doing all their studies at home.

This week, Congress also approved additional funding for the Payroll Protection Program, which should help more businesses keep their employees on payroll during the crisis.

These are positive developments, but it’s also important to remember that unemployment claims figures do not paint a complete picture. Self-employed workers, small-business owners, and gig-economy workers who have lost their livelihoods are newly eligible for unemployment benefits under the federal CARES Act but have not yet been able to apply for or receive benefits.

Those Mainers are not reflected in these figures, nor are many others who have lost their jobs but have not yet filed for benefits.