Maine lawmakers: State unemployment filing system still not fixed

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Rep. Ryan Fecteau and Sen. Shenna Bellows have been the loudest voices demanding a fix for the state’s new unemployment filing system. (David Leaming/Morning Sentinel file)

With an official investigation of the Maine Department of Labor looming, state legislators say they are still hearing from constituents that the new unemployment filing system is leaving them in the dark without their benefits.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, both members of the legislative committee that has called for the Labor Department to address the problems, have been the loudest voices leading the charge for a fix, and Fecteau said he continues to hear from constituents as well as whistle-blowers within the department.

“So the issue has not quieted in any way,” he said.

Sen Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who represents District 1 in Aroostook County, said he is hearing from concerned logging workers who will become unemployed when mud season hits and softening roads will be posted.

Jackson said he began hearing about problems with the unemployment filing system back when it was rolled out in December. A 69-year-old construction worker called him after he was unable to make his claim. The constituent was told he had to file online, which he wasn’t able to do, because he hadn’t been trained to use computers and didn’t have access to the internet.

“So that really concerned me,” Jackson said. “There are a number of people in that situation.”

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Jackson recalled that when he was on the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, members of both parties agreed that requiring everyone to apply for a license online didn’t make sense, because many people are without computers or internet access. He says the unemployment situation is similar.

“I don’t see how this makes sense in Maine,” he said. “I’m not against using the internet, but I think having it exclusively is really unfair to many people in the state.”

Just a week after the state rolled out its new unemployment filing system, ReEmployME, complaints began pouring in that the system was not working properly. Claimants were not getting their benefits, could not get through to anyone in the department, were getting locked out of their accounts, and were not being treated properly. Legislators called for answers to the complaints and fixes from the department, neither of which came.

Then, an internal memo leaked to the Morning Sentinel revealed allegations that high-ranking officials in the department illegally ordered that records of complaints of system failures be destroyed.

The department denies the charges, shifting the blame back on those who are failing in their attempts to use the system.

The department has yet to fulfill multiple Freedom of Access Act requests regarding internal communications and other aspects of the ReEmployME rollout.

Jackson said he has been in contact with the department, and was told his constituents could use a public library to file their claims. However, many of the towns in his rural district have no public library. Since December, he has heard from about 35 constituents who were locked out of their accounts or unable to file claims. He expects those numbers to increase now that mud season has begun.

“It’s hard as a legislator to explain to them I had nothing to do with creating this problem,” Jackson said. “I’ll be their advocate. The department has taken my calls. … Because I’m a legislator I’m able to get through. But if there isn’t someone like me to advocate for someone, all there is is frustration.”

Fecteau, who called for a formal investigation into the department that was ultimately approved by the Government Oversight Committee, said Tuesday the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability was still working on its investigation into the Department of Health and Human Services’ apparent failure to protect two young girls who were killed in their homes after months of abuse and has yet to take up the Labor Department investigation.

Beth Ashcroft, OPEGA’s director, said that while every investigation is its own entity, on average a review can take months to conduct. The agency is currently on a rapid response review of Child Protective Services, she said. A rapid response happens when two-thirds of the oversight committee votes to conduct the review, as is the case with the Labor Department. It is likely OPEGA will report the results of the Child Protective Services investigation in early May, although a second phase may be requested by the committee.

“Absent that, I do expect we’ll be looking to get started on unemployment in May,” Ashcroft said.

OPEGA has conducted reviews into the Department of Health and Human Services twice over the past 13 years that were similar to the one slated for the Labor Department, Ashcroft said, but the investigation into the Labor Department is unique because of allegations that documents recording claimants’ complaints have been illegally shredded.

“There may be some extra time around that,” Ashcroft said. “It’s typically months that it takes us to take a look at it. In this case they wanted us to go right back to the decision-making in getting involved in the four-state consortium. That’s quite a time span to cover.”

Bellows said she continues to hear that problems for both claimants and employees within the department persist, and that upper management within the Labor Department isn’t interested in fixing the system’s shortcomings.

“I have heard that management is more interested in finding out who the department whistle-blowers are than truly rectifying the problems,” Bellows said. “I hope the department is being compliant with OPEGA. I want employees to know their conversations with OPEGA are completely confidential under law.”

She said anyone experiencing problems or who knows anyone experiencing problems should contact their elected officials immediately.

“It’s wrong for upper management to be intimidating employees and discouraging them from speaking to either elected officials or OPEGA about the problems they’re witnessing,” Bellows said.

Bellows said she continues to hear that the department continues to let claimants file their work search histories only online, which violates federal law.

“There are plenty of Mainers who don’t have access to a computer,” Bellows said. “What we’re hearing is the department continues to make that a requirement, and that leaves people without benefits.”

The department has claimed these assertions about the work search aspect are false. At a recent legislative hearing, Nina McLaughlin, the department’s director of policy and legislative affairs, said claimants can file using alternative methods. They can go into a career center and get help, or call in and someone can enter their information for them. McLaughlin admitted, however, that the information would have to be entered into the ReEmployME computer system.

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

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Twitter: colinoellis

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