AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said in April he’d received “hundreds and hundreds” of complaints about Maine’s unemployment claims process, but a recent analysis by the Sun Journal found that only 30 of the nearly 400 complaints stacked on LePage’s desk since he took office in January 2011 came from business owners who took issue with the administrative appeals hearing process.
LePage said during a visit to an Auburn elementary school on April 23 that the appeals process was “one-sided” and favored former workers filing for benefits.
Yet, of the complaints LePage received, a nearly equal number of former workers complained about the hearing process.
A month earlier, LePage had called administrative hearing officers who preside over unemployment claims appeals to a mandatory luncheon meeting at the governor’s mansion.
A Sun Journal investigation cited sources in an April 11 report that LePage had scolded the hearing officers at that luncheon for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly. Afterward, the hearing officers said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor, according to the newspaper’s sources.
LePage denied pressuring the hearing officers and their supervisors. He said he was responding to complaints from both employers and employees about the hearing process. LePage said roughly eight examiners at the luncheon “had agreed they were going to work with their supervisors, look at the ambiguity in the laws and send it over to our office. We would put a governor’s bill upstairs and try to get the ambiguity out of the law.”
But the complaints received by LePage about the appeals hearing process represent less than half of one percent of the more than 14,000 hearings held during the first two years of the LePage administration.
The data provided by the governor’s office to the Sun Journal in response to a Freedom of Access Act request show that most of the nearly 400 complaints at the governor’s office don’t take issue with the unemployment claims appeals hearing process. Only 7.5 percent of business owners said they had a problem with appeals hearings.
The greatest number — 64 — came from former workers griping that their unemployment benefits were denied or were inadequate.
Forty-one former workers complained that they encountered problems with the unemployment process or felt the process took too long.
In fact, the governor’s office logged more than twice the number of phone calls, emails and letters from unhappy former workers than they did employers’ complaints.
In 2011, administrative hearing officers at the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation’s Division of Administrative hearings ruled on 7,912 appeals of unemployment claims at the Maine Department of Labor.
The following year, hearing officers decided 6,315 cases. Fewer than one-third of their decisions in each year favored the ex-worker claiming unemployment benefits.
Meanwhile, a federal investigation is ongoing.
David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, in mid-April called for an “immediate investigation” into the governor and “other high-level officials for violations of federal laws requiring the impartial and prompt administration of unemployment insurance benefits.”
Last month, a federal solicitor met with luncheon attendees and interviewed them about what LePage said during that meeting. She declined to estimate how long the investigation might take, Webbert said.
“When I talked to her the first time she said there really weren’t any rules to this situation because, she said, it was relatively unprecedented,” he said. Webbert said he believes the federal investigators are “likely to issue some kind of corrective action.”
At the same time, LePage launched a blue-ribbon commission charged with reviewing Maine’s unemployment compensation system.
“The goal of the commission is to ensure Maine’s unemployment insurance system provides benefits for workers who are rightly entitled to them, while ensuring businesses are not charged when they appropriately let employees go,” according to the governor’s office. The commission also is expected to review the rules and laws governing the system “to assure Mainers they are consistently applied.”