At a meeting last month, Gov. Paul LePage pressured hearing officers at the Department of Labor to decide unemployment-benefit cases in favor of business owners over workers, sources to the Sun Journal have said.
LePage summoned more than a dozen employees at the state agency to a luncheon on March 21 that lasted more than an hour and a half, sources said, to discuss the unemployment hearing process.
Their presence was required in an early March email and attendance was taken at the Blaine House. LePage arrived late from an earlier meeting and then left for his annual vacation in Jamaica.
Also attending the luncheon were political appointees, including the department's commissioner, Jeanne Paquette, and Jennifer Duddy, chairwoman of the Unemployment Insurance Commission.
At that gathering, LePage scolded about eight administrative hearing officers and their supervisors, complaining that too many cases on appeal from the Bureau of Unemployment were being decided in favor of employees. He said the officers were doing their jobs poorly, sources said.
If true, the meeting would constitute "an unprecedented type of political interference in the hearing process," an expert on labor law told the Sun Journal.
When he fired a worker during his time as a business manager, LePage told the group, it was always for good reason.
The Sun Journal learned about the luncheon meeting through a number of sources whose names are being withheld because they fear retribution by the administration. Nearly a dozen people who attended the meeting were contacted by the Sun Journal by phone, email or both.
The Governor's Office declined to comment on the story Wednesday.
Administrative hearing officers, whose salaries are federally funded, explained to the governor at the meeting that they're required to adhere to federal guidelines in deciding cases, sources said.
Hearing officers, most of whom are lawyers, must send recorded copies of their administrative appeals hearings to the U.S. Department of Labor quarterly for federal review.
LePage was asked by someone at the luncheon meeting about the 30-day federal deadline for holding an appeals hearing and what to do if an employer were to argue that more time was needed to prepare a case. LePage, who is not a lawyer, said that if allowing additional time for employers meant missing the federal deadline,“so be it.”
Some of the agency's workers said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by LePage's tone and rhetoric, which they found intimidating and made them afraid they could lose their jobs if they didn't skew the outcomes of their appeals cases in favor of employers, sources said.
Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, said Wednesday she didn't attend the meeting, but she had spoken with people at the department who did.
She said Paquette and Duddy were unavailable to speak with the Sun Journal on Wednesday afternoon.
Rabinowitz said the meeting was presented as a discussion between the administrative hearing officers and the governor, although hearing officers described it as more of a lecture than a dialogue.
Rabinowitz said she couldn't confirm whether the governor pressured hearings officers to be more pro-business in their decisions. But, she said, people at the department called the tone “cordial” and no one reported feeling intimidated.
“To my understanding of the meeting, it was not a discussion that the hearing officers were doing a bad job because they were finding more for claimants than employers,” Rabinowitz said.
Paquette and LePage were concerned that “everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and due process," Rabinowitz said.
“We want people to have faith in the unemployment adjudication system and it shouldn't be finding in favor of one or the other," she said. "It should be finding on the basis of the facts and the evidence that are presented at the hearing.”
Lawyers who argue labor cases said they were shocked to hear that the governor would seek to influence the outcomes of hearings that are meant to be based on facts and free from bias.
"Over the 75-year history of the unemployment program, this would be an unprecedented type of political interference in the hearing process, to my knowledge," anywhere in the country, said Rick McHugh, senior staff attorney with the New York-based National Employment Law Project.
Curtis Webber, an Auburn lawyer who has been representing clients in cases on appeal before administrative hearing officers and the Unemployment Insurance Commission since the early 1960s, said he was troubled to hear that the governor might be seeking to influence the outcomes of claims appeals.
“This information, if true, is awful and it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable, although I'm not sure exactly what remedies a person would have in this kind of situation,” he said. “I really think that's very upsetting.”
A labor lawyer in Portland called the behavior "outrageous." (See related story.)
"It’s not called jury tampering, but it’s called something like that, using political clout to affect the judge," Howard Reben said.
LePage, who campaigned for governor on a pro-business platform, said at the luncheon that the actions of the hearing officers were destroying the business climate in Maine, according to sources.
Hearing officers had been told by their supervisors about a year and a half ago that they too often rule on appeals in favor of employees after a company owner apparently complained to the LePage administration following an appeals hearing that ended with a ruling in favor of the employee.
As a result, hearing officers were told to report to their supervisors all decisions they found favorable to employees before entering their formal rulings on those cases. That practice lasted only a few months.
Data requested by the Sun Journal from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that the number of cases successfully appealed by employees to administrative hearing officers declined slightly from 2011 to 2012. Over that same period, the number of cases successfully appealed by employers rose by a small percentage.
When a worker in Maine is fired, that worker can apply to the Maine Department of Labor's Bureau of Unemployment Compensation for benefits. Appeals of those fact-finding decisions are presented to a federally mandated level of administrative hearing officers, composed largely of lawyers, who are paid through federal funding and have to follow federal guidelines.
Appeals of those decisions go to the Unemployment Insurance Commission, the last stop within the agency. The three-member panel is composed of appointees of the governor. One serves as chair, one represents employees and one represents employers.
The next level of appeal is Maine Superior Court.
The more employees from a single company who qualify for unemployment benefits, the higher the rate that employer likely will pay to the state in unemployment insurance.
Maine ranked 24th in the country last year for the maximum unemployment insurance tax at 8.1 percent, according to the Tax Policy Center based in Washington.