New state unemployment appeals chief says she will aim for consistency

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AUGUSTA — Nearly a year after Gov. Paul LePage reportedly berated administrative hearing officers at the Maine Department of Labor, the agency has hired a new chief to supervise those hearing officers.

For years, it was Elizabeth Wyman’s job to defend in court the decisions of the M DOL on appeals of unemployment claims.

Wyman, who represented the department as an assistant attorney general, heard firsthand from judges why they upheld or overruled decisions handed down by the Unemployment Insurance Commission, the MDOL’s highest level of appeals before a case went to court.

In her new role as the chief officer at the Division of Administrative Hearings, Wyman expects to focus on making sure that interpretations of the laws governing the appeals process are consistent and defensible, she said Monday, after only one week on the job.

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A Sun Journal investigation last year cited sources who said LePage had called MDOL administrative hearing officers to a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House in March and scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor launched an investigation into the complaint. The federal agency said two weeks ago it expected to make public its report, but has since put release of that report on hold.

In an interview at her new office, Wyman said that as an assistant attorney general, she defended the state agency about 50 times in court last year, the highest annual caseload in her tenure as agency legal counsel.

“I was seeing the judges a lot and I was getting a lot of feedback from the judges about the program that I thought I could bring back to the agency in terms of how the program was perceived as a whole,” she said. “Were people getting treated fairly? Were people feeling like the process was working? That it wasn’t overly bureaucratic. But were they really being heard?”

Wyman said she had a unique perspective on the cases because they would come to her only after they’d been through the department’s various levels of appeals. Once a worker leaves a job, that worker can file for unemployment benefits at MDOL. If denied, the worker can appeal that decision, first to the Division of Administrative Hearings, then to the Unemployment Insurance Commission. The employer has the same right of appeal.

“I could see issues where I thought there could be improvement in the interpretation of the law (at the agency’s appeals levels.) But I didn’t fully have an appreciation and still don’t of all the difficulties that come from trying to have consistency and collaboration because of the required legal divisions between the various levels of appeal,” she said.

At the March luncheon last year, LePage had reportedly been asked by an attendee what a hearing officer should do if an employer were to argue for more time to prepare an appeal than the 30-day federal deadline for holding an appeals hearing. According to Sun Journal sources, LePage said that if allowing additional time for employers meant missing the federal deadline, then, “So be it.”

Asked on Monday whether she would instruct her hearing officers to do as LePage reportedly said they should, Wyman said, “No. I think that (employers) have enough time . . . the sooner you get the hearing, the better off you’re going to be.”

One way Wyman said she hopes to bring more consistency to the appeals process is in the return of a long-defunct, so-called Precedent Committee, likely composed of agency heads or representatives, who would discuss legal issues that arise during appeals. Wyman said that committee would be charged with reaching consensus on how to interpret the laws that serve as the guidelines for those who hear appeals at the agency when no interpretation has been offered as yet from a court judge.

“I’m excited about that,” she said. “That is a valuable tool to making the process work better.”

That suggestion came from the Unemployment Reform Blue Ribbon Commission, a panel created by LePage in the wake of complaints sparked by the March luncheon.

Another recommendation was to increase staffing levels around the unemployment claims and appeals process, an effort that’s already underway, Wyman said.

She said she believes the administrative hearing officers need to be impartial, but are not independent, the way a judge in a Maine court is.

Instead, the hearing officers have an obligation to interpret the law in a manner “that is consistent — to the extent possible” with the U.S. Department of Labor’s position, she said. The officers are paid with flow-through federal money and must adhere to federal guidelines and criteria.

LePage said he called the luncheon meeting because he had gotten complaints from employers who claimed the process was unfair.

Wyman said Monday that she expected to review any appeals cases that prompted a complaint either to the governor’s office or to the department’s commissioner. But she was quick to add that she wouldn’t interfere if the complaint were to stem from interpretation of law.

“If somebody had a complaint like a hearing officer had not given them an interpreter or something that can be addressed right away,” she might intervene, “but if it’s a question about interpretation of the law, it has to be appealed to the commission and so it needs to go up the chain that is set forth in the statute,” she said.

cwilliams@sunjournal.com

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