AUGUSTA — A legislative committee will invite the governor’s administration to talk about what it has done in response to an Unemployment Reform Blue Ribbon Commission report and a letter from the federal Department of Labor regarding allegations that the governor and state labor officials tried to influence the way unemployment hearing officers rule.

Both the commission’s report and the department’s letter offered recommendations for the administration. Members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee said Wednesday they want to know how the administration is responding to those recommendations.

“They’ve had plenty of time to look at those reports and review them, and I would like to hear from somebody,” said State Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, committee co-chairman.

Allegations arose last year when a 2013 Sun Journal investigative report cited sources who said Gov. Paul LePage had summoned Labor Department employees to a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House on March 21 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 told the Sun Journal they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

Emails released under a Freedom of Access Act request echoed those complaints.

LePage denied the allegations, characterizing the meeting as “cordial.” He said he had been trying to ensure fair hearings for all appellants

Advertisement

LePage created a blue ribbon commission and tasked it with reviewing “complaints and concerns raised by Maine citizens about the consistency and objectivity of the unemployment adjudication process.”

In December, that panel reported that it found no direct or intentional bias against employees or employers. However, it did not address the specific charges raised by people at the luncheon.

The commission recommended improvements to the system, including technology upgrades, more staffing, greater communication among staff at the three levels of the unemployment and appeals process, greater public understanding of the unemployment insurance program and more efficiency in the appeals process by improving the collection of evidence from employers. 

In February, the U.S. Department of Labor notified the state that the federal investigation found LePage and state labor officials had intervened in unemployment hearings in a way that could have swayed hearing officers to favor employers over claimants.

A letter addressed to Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette concluded that the administration acted with “what could be perceived as a bias toward employers” and hearing officers could have interpreted that as an expectation to be more sympathetic toward employers.

It also said the practice of excluding hearsay evidence at hearings could be unduly restrictive, and that “failure to consider all available evidence without weighing its probative value may lead to error.” Investigators also found some inconsistencies in Maine’s appeals process.

Advertisement

The department made several recommendations, including that Maine consider more generous evidentiary appeals practices and that the attorney general identify improvements in the appeals process so that there is greater consistency with state law and fairness and integrity within the program.

It also recommended that LePage and his political appointees ensure that the unemployment compensation appeals process is “insulated from outside pressures that might compromise even the appearance of fairness and impartiality.” It said the administration must ensure that hearing officers aren’t intimidated and the administration must make clear that no personnel action will be taken against hearing officers in this matter.

The Government Oversight Committee will invite representatives from the governor’s administration to a future public meeting.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: