Gov. Paul LePage said in April he'd received “hundreds and hundreds” of complaints about Maine's unemployment claims process, but a recent analysis by the Sun Journal found that only 30 of the nearly 400 complaints stacked on LePage's desk since he took office in January 2011 came from business owners who took issue with the administrative appeals hearing process.
LePage said during a visit to an Auburn elementary school on April 23 that the appeals process was “one-sided” and favored former workers filing for benefits.
Yet, of the complaints LePage received, a nearly equal number of former workers complained about the hearing process.
A month earlier, LePage had called administrative hearing officers who preside over unemployment claims appeals to a mandatory luncheon meeting at the governor's mansion.
A Sun Journal investigation cited sources in an April 11 report that LePage had scolded the hearing officers at that luncheon for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly. Afterward, the hearing officers said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor, according to the newspaper's sources.
LePage denied pressuring the hearing officers and their supervisors. He said he was responding to complaints from both employers and employees about the hearing process. LePage said roughly eight examiners at the luncheon “had agreed they were going to work with their supervisors, look at the ambiguity in the laws and send it over to our office. We would put a governor's bill upstairs and try to get the ambiguity out of the law."
But the complaints received by LePage about the appeals hearing process represent less than half of one percent of the more than 14,000 hearings held during the first two years of the LePage administration.
The data provided by the governor's office to the Sun Journal in response to a Freedom of Access Act request show that most of the nearly 400 complaints at the governor's office don't take issue with the unemployment claims appeals hearing process. Only 7.5 percent of business owners said they had a problem with appeals hearings.
The greatest number — 64 — came from former workers griping that their unemployment benefits were denied or were inadequate.
Forty-one former workers complained that they encountered problems with the unemployment process or felt the process took too long.
In fact, the governor's office logged more than twice the number of phone calls, emails and letters from unhappy former workers than they did employers' complaints.
In 2011, administrative hearing officers at the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation's Division of Administrative hearings ruled on 7,912 appeals of unemployment claims at the Maine Department of Labor.
The following year, hearing officers decided 6,315 cases. Fewer than one-third of their decisions in each year favored the ex-worker claiming unemployment benefits.
Meanwhile, a federal investigation is ongoing.
David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, in mid-April called for an “immediate investigation” into the governor and “other high-level officials for violations of federal laws requiring the impartial and prompt administration of unemployment insurance benefits.”
Last month, a federal solicitor met with luncheon attendees and interviewed them about what LePage said during that meeting. She declined to estimate how long the investigation might take, Webbert said.
"When I talked to her the first time she said there really weren't any rules to this situation because, she said, it was relatively unprecedented," he said. Webbert said he believes the federal investigators are "likely to issue some kind of corrective action."
At the same time, LePage launched a blue-ribbon commission charged with reviewing Maine's unemployment compensation system.
“The goal of the commission is to ensure Maine’s unemployment insurance system provides benefits for workers who are rightly entitled to them, while ensuring businesses are not charged when they appropriately let employees go,” according to the governor's office. The commission also is expected to review the rules and laws governing the system “to assure Mainers they are consistently applied.”
Complaints about jobless-claims process come from all sides
Among the dozens of complaints sitting in Gov. Paul LePage's office is one that belongs to a lawyer in mid-coast Maine who wrote LePage an email that began: “You win. I give up. I can't compete against the state of Maine.”
The lawyer has a small law office but said he couldn't find anyone who wants to work.
“I can't match the rich benefits the state provides to those who do not want to work and, in Maine, that seems to be most people,” he wrote.
Roughly 80 percent of the people who respond to the lawyer's ads don't show up for the interview, he said.
“That seems to satisfy the law,” the attorney wrote. “You are enabling a sham.”
Business owners account for 89 of the 397 phone calls, emails and letters weighing in on the state of unemployment compensation in Maine, as logged by the governor's office.
By contrast, 193 former workers wrote to the governor to express concerns about payment delays, hearing delays, discrimination, fraud and other issues within the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation.
A small fraction of those nearly 400 complaints take aim at the administrative hearing appeals process and the officers who preside over those hearings.
Thirty business owners complained to the governor about the unemployment compensation hearing process, according to data compiled by the governor's office and broken out into categories by the Maine Department of Labor.
Jason Levesque, owner of Argo Marketing Group in Lewiston, said he has contested as many as 40 claims decisions at the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation over the past four years.
Levesque said he objects to the tone of the conversation by the hearing officers during both the initial claims and appeals process. The burden of proof always falls on him, the employer, or “guilty until proven innocent,” he said. If the former worker lies to the hearing officer, Levesque is expected to “disprove a lie,” which is difficult, he said.
“It's very discouraging,” he said.
LePage called administrative hearing officers to a March 21 mandatory luncheon in response to the complaints. Those officers preside over appeals by former workers and employers after a claimant has been awarded or denied benefits.
But not all of the 30 business owners who complained to the governor had a gripe with hearing officers. In some cases, their beef was with the initial filing assessment or with the second tier of appeal, the Unemployment Insurance Commission.
The governor's office provided the Sun Journal with a list of four employers they said had agreed to be interviewed about their unsatisfactory experience with Maine's unemployment appeals hearing process.
But, other than Levesque, these appeared to miss the mark.
Adam Lee, chairman of the board at Lee Auto Malls, said he complained to the Department of Labor's commissioner, not to the governor's office.
A former worker was fired after making threats to other employees, Lee said. When the former employee filed for unemployment, the state sought Lee's input regarding the claim the same day it notified Lee that the state had approved the benefits.
When he appealed, he didn't present witnesses who had been threatened by the former worker. He was told that hearsay about the threats wasn't admissible.
He appealed to the Unemployment Insurance Commission and prevailed after presenting at least one witness who had been threatened by the former employee, Lee said.
Another employer referred to the Sun Journal declined to speak on the record. The fourth employer said he had only two employees and hadn't any direct experience with the hearing process. He referred the Sun Journal to an inn owner in Freeport, who couldn't be reached for comment.
Among the list of employees who reportedly complained to the governor about the hearing process was Eric Hodgkins of Livermore Falls.
He said he was laid off in December as a division manager for a roofing company.
He complained that it took six weeks from the time he filed for unemployment benefits to hear from the state, then another four weeks to get a decision ruling in his favor, he said.
His former employer appealed. Three weeks later, a hearing was held on the appeal.
The hearing officer ruled in favor of the former employer, Hodgkin said, even after discovering the employer had lied.