Maine lawmakers closer to toughening unemployment comp laws, taking away vacation exemption

AUGUSTA — Republicans on the Legislature's Labor Committee approved a controversial bill that would increase the penalties for unemployment compensation fraud and the qualifications to receive out-of-work benefits.

The bill, LD 1725, had been presented by the Department of Labor, which argued that an increase in unemployment claims has been accompanied by an increased possibility of fraud. The measure, which passed along party lines, includes a provision that would remove an exemption that allows a claimant to receive benefits while collecting unused vacation pay.

A third provision would ratchet up work-search mandates by decreasing the length of time an unemployed worker can receive benefits while looking for a job of comparable skill and wage level to the one lost. The original bill would have cut in half the so-called suitable work provision, from the current 12 weeks to six weeks. 

However, Republicans amended the bill to set the suitable work provision at 10 weeks, after which a worker must take a job of lesser qualifications and wages if available.

Despite the GOP work-search concession, Democrats on the committee still opposed the bill. Their opposition centered on the vacation-pay provision, which effectively reverses a law passed by the Legislature in 2010 that allowed a laid-off worker to receive vacation pay and other earned-time benefits from their previous job while collecting unemployment benefits.

The 2010 change was fiercely opposed by business advocates such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which argued that it increased the costs of maintaining the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

The fund is supported by Maine employers, who pay taxes to keep it solvent. According to the Maine Department of Labor, the state has one of the healthiest unemployment funds in the country. However, business groups worry that increased use could threaten the program.

The bill is supported by Gov. Paul LePage, who touted it last year as a crackdown on fraud.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Maine has the fifth-lowest rate of unemployment fraud in the country and the lowest in New England. Its fraud rate is almost five times lower than the national average.

Maine labor statistics show that fraud represents less than half of 1 percent of unemployment claims.

If it passes, the bill would create a new fraud penalty ranging from less than a year in jail to up to 10 years if the fraud is in excess of $10,000.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce has argued that employers valued the strengthening of fraud laws because employers ultimately funded the unemployment insurance fund. The chamber also noted that in 2010, employers saw a 68 percent increase in their unemployment insurance taxes — about $54 million.

Opponents of the bill have countered that the real problem is a lack of jobs, not Maine's unemployed workers.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said workers shouldn't be penalized just because they lost their jobs when they had earned vacation time on the books.

"The Legislature fixed this problem two years ago and it is senseless to go backward, especially while so many Maine workers are currently facing the uncertainty and stress of unemployment," Schlobohm said in a statement. 

Labor unions oppose the bill altogether but the vacation-time provision in particular, which could have an impact at organized workplaces like Bath Iron Works, where workers are often laid off during down cycles. 

Other worker advocates were critical of the proposed changes to work-search provisions.

"We all know that Maine people searching for jobs are already having a tough time finding work," said Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners. "Why would we want to make unemployed workers take jobs they’re not suited for instead of utilizing their skills for the benefit of themselves and the economy?"

Merrill added, "Lawmakers should be focused on job creation instead of making things harder for unemployed workers." 

The bill will move to the state Senate for a preliminary vote. 

smistler@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Fixing what isn't broke

"According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Maine has the fifth-lowest rate of unemployment fraud in the country and the lowest in New England. Its fraud rate is almost five times lower than the national average.'

One can see that the administration is attempting to fix a problem that is almost non-existent, and then making sure that anyone who is in the program that gives a little back during a hard time suffers even more.

We're all bums, according to this administration, out to take whatever we can. We don't deserve anything! We're all lazy and pathetic layabouts.

I'm pretty sure that not many people stay on unemployment to get rich. It's not the easy way out, and they'd be better off to fix the system that is in place, because it is badly managed, and impossible to navigate without the patience of a saint.

Plus: the music on the hold system for the unemployment claims phone system is about 40 years old and it desperately needs to be replaced with anything that resembles real music. I dreaded having to call the claims people because waiting to talk to them was sheer absolute torture.

But on the serious side-they're just trying to make sure we pay for a bad economy. We're all to blame for it.

Betty Davies's picture

Republicans--the party of "kick 'em when they're down."

This bill is just odious.

Bob Deschenes's picture

Unemployment dips

When we go to work, we don't expect to get hurt we don't even want it The they try to blame it on everything else but the job. We try to get unions to help us out as far as collective bargaining and job safety. You see if you get hurt it mightmbe because you are rushed or the employer did not have the necessary equipment. I's never their fault. Even if OSHA IS CALLED, OSHA tells the company and has to make an appoinment for a visit. Usually 2 or 3 months after they have received the call. The companys move the jobs out of state or the country. Just how much do you think the are paing in unemployment, workmans comp, insurance overseas? I am surprised that the republicans have not come up with a democratic guillotine and started chopping heads. You have to take in consideration the gas when you lose a job. I have been asked to drive to bucksport (thru the laborers union) to work there. Here goes it is a 200 mile round trip and it takes 6 (SIX) hours for roundtrip. I make 16.02 an hour when i work which is far inbetween cause maine does not have any work. Well that 16.02 times 8 hours gives me $128.16 for the days Now we taked taxes out at %15.00 WOW sounds like I.m playing with the big boys now but i assure you i am not. that brings my pay down 108.93 now we take the gas out 15.6 gallons of gas @ 3.949 which comes to 61.60 sutracted from 108.93 that comes to 47.33 for my days work. You people in office have no clue how hard it is for all of us. Just figure out that job at minimum wage. Ya there might be work in the other state of maine I don't think many people would sell and leave everything they have and buy a new place in order to make more money. Why don't you try it for a while? Drive a hundred miles a day before you get to work and then dive another hundred miles a day before supper

Ellen Levesque's picture

A lot of folks travel that

A lot of folks travel that far to get work. They car pool or take a room in the area for the nights they need to. It sounds like you are just looking for an excuse not to work at a good paying job. Are you saying that you earn more than $250.00 a week on unemployment? There are many people who are working under the table and still getting their unemployment. This isn't right either. You blame the republicans for trying to make changes but the problem has been building for many years and no one wanted to fix it. They just keep pushing it down the road and now the day has come as the money has run out. Any job should be better than none if a person has the opportunity to work. Just saying.

Bob Deschenes's picture

You took all of what i said

You took all of what i said and turned it all around to hear what you wanted to hear. Had i took that one day job and rented a hotel room it would have cost me more that the travelling. I do not work under the table i hardly ever drwaw unemployment in ME I travel out of state to work in many nuclear plants and draw out of state unemployment. You just don't get it I agree with you that any job is better than none. It is just the fact that sometimes it is just not feasable. Well turn this around again and try to show i am just a smoocher. Sounds like your runnung for office somewheres. I am etired on soc sec i have paid my dues and still trying to earn a little bit. Why don't you aim your stuff at everyone that just does this collecting to live on there are many many families in maine especially in lewiston that live off foods stamps, disability people came in frim samalia. There parents come here, the kids come here and brag abou how good it is in lewiston. they live at the corner of blake and maple.
Apparently you have never taken a job and gone out of state having enough money to get there and live on till you get your first paycheck and worrying if you wyii have enough money to cover your bills there and the ones you have at home. MY house alonr costs me $1,000.00 a month not counting utilities. When i travel my my hotel room is about $1200.00 per month not counting food. So do you see that going to a job costs much more money. Engage your brain before engaging mouth.

Ellen Levesque's picture

I am not running for

I am not running for anything. I did misunderstand what you said. I am also retired and get soooo irritated with the young folks and the imports that are only here to get the free handouts this state is so happy to give them. I worked for $2.00 a week more than unemployment back in the 60's because I didn't want to be on the dole so don't think I have never had a job. I worked many years and have only been retired a little while. My husband and I were in a restaurant a few weeks ago in Augusta and overhear a fellow telling the folks he was with that he had hired a receptionist under the table, paying her 12.50 an hour so that she could still get her unemployment. This is one of the problems but it is never investigated. So I am sorry if you were insulted.

Bob Deschenes's picture

Sorry i got heated up. I am

Sorry i got heated up. I am 63 and worked for i think it was 64.00 a week in the 60's in the army I understand more what you meant now. If you are related to Bert and Ray, is omer still around. bobdesch49@yahoo.com he was my best friend on maple and knox street

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

Another Republican solution for a non-existant problem

I suggest Maine's Republicans follow Virginia's Governor Ultrasound MacDonnell's solution to any non-existant problem - punish women. We all know they are the source of all evil.

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