Members of a legislative committee are calling for top officials in the Maine Department of Labor to take responsibility for rushing out a faulty unemployment filing system and allegedly destroying records of claimants who were not able to access their benefits for weeks.
The new filing system, known as ReEmployME, was put in use despite concerns within the department, according to a confidential memo obtained by the Morning Sentinel. Two former temporary department employees with firsthand knowledge of the program independently confirmed many of the claims in the memo.
The document also alleges what appears to be a cover-up of the problems, with records being destroyed and phone lines shut down so claimants couldn’t leave messages.
Three members of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, including a co-chair, called for the Department of Labor to take responsibility for the system’s failures, and said an investigation into its actions may be needed. The other 10 members of the committee did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday.
State Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she wants Labor Commissioner John Butera and Bureau of Unemployment Compensation Director John Feeney – the person the memo singles out as having direct responsibility for the system’s failures – to appear before the committee to answer questions.
“I want to hear from them about what they are doing to fix the online system,” Bellows said Monday, and “why on earth they allowed the complaints from claimants to be destroyed.”
Laura Hudson, the department’s information officer, has not responded to emails from the Morning Sentinel for the past several weeks and did not respond to a request for comment from Feeney on Monday. The department also has yet to comply with multiple Freedom of Access Act requests, although it did acknowledge receipt of the requests sent by the Morning Sentinel.
In a tweet Monday, WGME-TV quoted Butera as saying that the department had investigated the claims and found they were not true, and that all calls had been logged and saved.
Bellows said that if documents were destroyed, it was a violation of right-to-know laws. She also said the department is out of compliance with federal law by not allowing claimants to have an alternative method of filing their work search history.
Under ReEmployME, claimants would have to file their work searches online, which has proven to be problematic for older Mainers and those living in rural areas without reliable access to the internet or a computer.
“The Department of Labor has an opportunity to make things right for Mainers,” Bellows said. “They have a choice. They can move forward to fix all the problems that have been documented and turn this around. Or not.”
Bellows has said high-ranking officials in the department should lose their jobs if it’s true that records were destroyed.
SUSPICIONS OF ‘GROSS NEGLIGENCE’
That sentiment was echoed Monday by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who co-chairs the committee. Fecteau said ReEmployME was rolled out prematurely and against the better judgment of many within the department who thought it was too soon.
He said that the department suppressed those opposition voices, and that someone or multiple people decided to start using the new system, which has left many Mainers without benefits for weeks at a time. Fecteau said that was “gross negligence” on the part of the department.
“Those folks ought to be fired,” he said.
Fecteau said Feeney was responsible for the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, which administers the system, and that “it’s clearly not been done well.”
“What I’m hearing from employees indicates there’s been a suppression from the top (regarding) complaints,” Fecteau said. “I think it’s completely wrong and unhealthy. And it’s not the way government should be working.”
After publication of the memo’s contents, more people affected by the program’s problems began posting on social media about the system’s shortcomings. One person tweeted that her son had never received an unemployment check. In an exchange with Bellows, the person called ReEmployME a “complete cluster.”
“He … gave up on the system,” she wrote.
Fecteau said a bill recently recommended by the committee would have required Feeney to appear before legislators in April. However, he didn’t think that would occur.
Fecteau also said the committee could call on the Government Oversight Committee, which has subpoena power.
“This has run amok,” he said. “It’s hard to clear off the layers of mud here to find out what’s really occurred and who’s really been impacted.”
ACCOUNTABILITY, ANOTHER ROLLOUT
State Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, wants Feeney to answer questions before the committee and take responsibility for the system’s failures and the alleged destruction of records.
“The destruction of documents, to me, is an outrageous thing,” said Handy, who also mentioned the possibility of an investigation. “I have no reason to believe that is not true, and I think someone needs to be held accountable.
“If there were people who destroyed documents who are no longer in the department, then someone in the department needs to come before us, accept responsibility and lay out exactly what they’re going to do to make the system work for those who it was intended for.”
Committee members also expressed concern about the department moving forward with the rollout of a similar filing system for employers. Fecteau said employers are largely unaware that a new system is being put in place. He said he also has heard there may be some staffing consolidations and movements of field representatives in the department.
“I cannot imagine launching a new system in August, having hundreds of businesses with questions, and not having enough staff to field those questions,” he said. “It’s gearing up for deja vu.”
Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, left, and Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, co-chairs of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, and panel member Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, participate in a work session on March 7. Fecteau said Monday that ReEmployME was rolled out prematurely, against the better judgment of many in the labor department. (Joe Phelan/Portland Press Hera;d)