Maine Governor Conveys Impact Of Coronavirus On Employment In Her State
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The deluge of unemployment claims comes as much of the country is under statewide stay-at-home orders to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. One of those states is Maine, where a stay-at-home order went into effect just this morning. Joining us now is the governor of Maine, Democrat Janet Mills.
JANET MILLS: Hi, Ailsa. Thank you for doing this.
CHANG: So I saw that your state had as well a record number of unemployment claims last week, 24,000 thereabouts. That surpassed the previous week, which was also a record. Do you think your state has the resources to handle this influx of new unemployment claims?
MILLS: We don't at this minute. Our usual claims - we had barely 3% unemployment in February, which was a record low. Over the last 18 months, we had a steady - steadily low unemployment rate. But now things have turned around, obviously. And much of that is small businesses and sole proprietors. But a hundred thousand sole proprietors in Maine, and they're now claiming because of the new federal law - the CARES act - and we're trying to process those.
CHANG: And have you been talking to staff who are processing these unemployment claims? How smoothly are things going right now?
MILLS: Not too smoothly. We only had 13 people working in the unemployment area...
MILLS: ...Department of Labor till last week. And we've been borrowing from other departments - from agriculture and workers comp and human services. And now there are, you know, more than 30 at a time. They're working day and night. They're working all weekend. And we're trying to find other people to help answer the questions. Some of the questions we don't have answers to, though, because we don't have the federal guidance to process these new kinds of claims under the expanded unemployment laws passed by Congress.
CHANG: Now, a good chunk of Maine's economy is based on tourism. What is your outlook for the summer tourist season?
MILLS: Oh, summer tourist season.
CHANG: Are you even looking that far ahead?
MILLS: I'm taking things one hour at a time and one day at a time right now. We're hoping that people will stay in Maine and be available for the workforce that we hope will be resurging come summer. But we're trying to defeat the virus first and foremost, telling everybody, do your part, stay apart.
CHANG: Now, we've been hearing about people living in nearby big cities like New York or Boston, people like that coming to Maine to stay at their vacation homes because they're trying to escape the coronavirus hotspots that they live in. How do you feel about absorbing these new folks into your state right now?
MILLS: Well, I'm advising them, look, we love you guys. We love you coming here in the summer and in the winter to ski. But don't bring the virus here. And if you're coming here from out of state or returning here from out of state, if you're from Maine, you're going to have to stay secluded in self-quarantine for 14 days. I'm insisting on that.
CHANG: Now, your stay-at-home order went into effect just after midnight today. This is days after most states had already enacted similar orders. Why did you wait so long?
MILLS: Well, we didn't wait long. In fact, we're quite on a par with other states with similar statistics. We were at the same level of incidents and test results as other states were when they enacted this kind of - when they issued this kind of order. Plus, we issued a much more comprehensive order than many other states. It's not just this so-called stay at home, stay healthy, stay home order. It also addresses certain essential businesses and how retailers can transact businesses and how people can stay in business if they are essential without coming into contact with other people, limiting customer numbers and things of that sort.
CHANG: Given the projections that you're looking at now, how confident are you that the health care infrastructure in Maine can handle all the patients you're expecting from this outbreak?
MILLS: Well, as I told the president and vice president on our call the other day, look, we're the oldest state in the nation. We are the most dispersed population of any state in the nation. Being rural has its advantages but has disadvantages, too. Our ICUs are filling up. And we have some doctors and nurses who've come down with the infection. And we do still desperately need more PPE and testing materials. We've ordered from private companies, but we've still only received a fraction of what we need. So just because we're a rural state, just because our numbers are still low compared to New York City, for instance, or Boston doesn't mean we don't need it. In fact, this is exactly when we need these resources and materials because we can prevent a surge if we get them now.
CHANG: And you've been making these pleas to the federal government. What have you been hearing so far from the federal government?
MILLS: I've been hearing reassurances, which obviously are appropriate. We're all pretty anxious. All 50 states, all governors are anxious about getting the right number of materials and PPEs and test materials. At the end of our call the other day, the vice president assured us that we would have a special call just among the rural states to talk about our specific needs. So I'm looking forward to that.
But we're fighting everything. We're coordinating with other states about the various needs of the regions. You know, this virus doesn't have a license plate. This virus doesn't know whether you're from Maine or Massachusetts or New York. The virus doesn't know any state or county borders. It's expanding everywhere.
CHANG: Democratic Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, thank you very much for joining us today.
MILLS: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.