Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, center, co chair of the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, has requested that the Government Oversight Committee launch an investigation into the Department of Labor’s unemployment insurance filing system and management. Co-chair Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, is at left and committee member Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, is at right. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo)

An official investigation into the Maine Department of Labor’s botched roll out of the unemployment insurance filing system has been requested by a state legislator after a leaked confidential memo outlined how the department rushed to implement the new system and destroyed records of their failure in what was described as a “coverup.”

Meanwhile, it was rumored that the department was finally going to respond to allegations of the failed rollout, which has left countless Mainers unable to access their benefits, as well as allegations of high ranking officials ordering that records of claimant complaints be destroyed. On Thursday morning, no such message had been released.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, co chair of the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, requested that the Government Oversight Committee launch an investigation into the department and the Office of Information Technology on Thursday. The GOC meets on Friday, when it would presumably decide whether to investigate. In his letter to the GOC, Fecteau states that he and state Sen. Shenna Bellows heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department, who noted low morale caused by an inability to properly help claimants. His letter also states a former employee at the Office of Information Technology noted an internal audit warned of faults with the system, known as ReEmployME.

“The issues reported by both claimants and whistleblowers raise many questions and concerns about the development and rollout of the unemployment online portal and the efficacy of delivering services to claimants,” Fecteau’s letter states, and goes on to state that by only allowing claimants to file their work search histories online, the department was violating federal law. “States must comply with the requirements of federal unemployment insurance law as a condition of receiving federal UI administrative grants, thus these issues also place the state at financial risk.”

Fecteau makes it clear he believes there needs to be an independent investigation conducted by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which conducts objective and independent performance audits of state government programs.

“The need for an investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) into MDOL and OIT as it relates to the unemployment consortium is abundantly clear,” Fecteau writes. “The investigation should consider all the issues raised in this memo, but should consider additional aspects of the consortium’s development, rollout and post-launch, as well as MDOL’s staffing levels within the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system that are not contemplated in this request.”

The GOC is the body that would call on OPEGA to conduct an investigation. Fecteau said for an expedited investigation to be launched, two-thirds of the GOC would need to support it.

In his address to the chairs of the oversight committee, Fecteau said he had held off the official request to give the Labor department a chance to release their statement.

“I have yet to see this memo and it is unlikely that it would contain information that would warrant not moving forward with this request,” Fecteau writes. “In fact, just this week, we have learned that 150 claimants were overpaid by the Department and yet another Department employeee contacted Senator Bellows reinforcing concerns raised in the attached request. An independent investigation is necessitated in scenarios like this one where whistleblowers and agencies present conflicting accounts of the impacts on our neighbors.”

Even had the Labor department finally addressed the allegations, Maine labor officials never responded to questions regarding the botched rollout of ReEmployME, or the allegations that high ranking department officials ordered that records of claimant complaints against them be illegally destroyed. The Morning Sentinel asked specifically about whether officials acknowledge the existence of the memo and whether John Feeney, the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation directly implicated in the document, would appear before a state legislative committee to answer questions raised by the memo.

The Morning Sentinel recently obtained a classified document, which outlines the Labor Department rushing out the overburdened software and showing little or no concern for the Mainers impacted by the bungling. Neither has the labor department complied with multiple Freedom of Access Act requests from the Morning Sentinel for records and other information other than to acknowledge receipt of the requests.

“Someone needs to account for the failure,” the author of the leaked document says toward the end. “Thousands of dollars in temporary staffing and overtime are accruing because of poor planning and decisions that look a lot like coverups.”

The shortcomings of the system and allegations of records destruction have been discussed at length by the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, which is co-chaired by Fecteau and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. The committee met on Tuesday, and while they had been slated to talk about language updates to a bill regarding unemployment, the committee ultimately did not discuss or vote on it. The bill, LD 1770, is a housekeeping bill that updates language in the law. The committee likely will not meet until March 28.

Fecteau said members of the committee wanted to change an amendment that passed earlier, clarifying some requirements for the Labor department, specifically regarding alternative filing methods for work search history. Under ReEmployME, claimants would have to file their work searches online, which has proven to be problematic for older Mainers or those living in rural areas without reliable access to the internet or a computer. The changed language also reverts back to adopting the department’s request for charging former employers. Fecteau said while that version is not what they wanted, he acknowledged they would have to “give a little to get something in return.”

The department had called for all past employers within a given time to be charged proportionally. Democrats had proposed only charging the most recent employer.

All the while, Mainers are still calling out ReEmployME for its faults. Tina Christophersen, the director of the Oxford Hills/Nezinscot Adult Education, said the career center in Lewiston was providing unemployment assistance to claimants at the Norway library, sending one person for two days a week. However, that service went away, so Christophersen said their program began sending volunteers to the library to provide the assistance. They send one person for a single two-hour shift, and have been doing so since Nov. 1. She said they have helped 21 people file their claims, and in that time, she says they have seen virtually every fault alleged against the system.

“We’ve experienced the long waits, the inability to talk to anybody,” she said.

The claimants they help are “the same people we serve” at the adult education program, Christophersen said. They come because they can’t read, don’t have internet access or a computer.

“To have this dumped on them, it’s very frustrating for them,” she said. “Some come in close to tears.”

Christophersen said they will continue to provide volunteer help for claimants struggling with ReEmployME, but said it will become more challenging during the summer when the staffing gets smaller due to lack of programming.

“It was the right thing to do,” she said of providing the help. “These are the same people we serve. It didn’t feel right.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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