May 27, 2018
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Complaints about jobless claims process come from all sides

By Chris Williams, Sun Journal

AUGUSTA, Maine — Among the dozens of complaints sitting in Gov. Paul LePage’s office is one that belongs to a lawyer in mid-coast Maine who wrote LePage an email that began: “You win. I give up. I can’t compete against the state of Maine.”

The lawyer has a small law office but said he couldn’t find anyone who wants to work.

“I can’t match the rich benefits the state provides to those who do not want to work and, in Maine, that seems to be most people,” he wrote.

Roughly 80 percent of the people who respond to the lawyer’s ads don’t show up for the interview, he said.

“That seems to satisfy the law,” the attorney wrote. “You are enabling a sham.”

Business owners account for 89 of the 397 phone calls, emails and letters weighing in on the state of unemployment compensation in Maine, as logged by the governor’s office.

By contrast, 193 former workers wrote to the governor to express concerns about payment delays, hearing delays, discrimination, fraud and other issues within the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation.

A small fraction of those nearly 400 complaints take aim at the administrative hearing appeals process and the officers who preside over those hearings.

Thirty business owners complained to the governor about the unemployment compensation hearing process, according to data compiled by the governor’s office and broken out into categories by the Maine Department of Labor.

Jason Levesque, owner of Argo Marketing Group in Lewiston, said he has contested as many as 40 claims decisions at the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation over the past four years.

Levesque said he objects to the tone of the conversation by the hearing officers during both the initial claims and appeals process. The burden of proof always falls on him, the employer, or “guilty until proven innocent,” he said. If the former worker lies to the hearing officer, Levesque is expected to “disprove a lie,” which is difficult, he said.

“It’s very discouraging,” he said.

LePage called administrative hearing officers to a March 21 mandatory luncheon in response to the complaints. Those officers preside over appeals by former workers and employers after a claimant has been awarded or denied benefits.

But not all of the 30 business owners who complained to the governor had a gripe with hearing officers. In some cases, their beef was with the initial filing assessment or with the second tier of appeal, the Unemployment Insurance Commission.

The governor’s office provided the Sun Journal with a list of four employers they said had agreed to be interviewed about their unsatisfactory experience with Maine’s unemployment appeals hearing process.

But, other than Levesque, these appeared to miss the mark.

Adam Lee, chairman of the board at Lee Auto Malls, said he complained to the Department of Labor’s commissioner, not to the governor’s office.

A former worker was fired after making threats to other employees, Lee said. When the former employee filed for unemployment, the state sought Lee’s input regarding the claim the same day it notified Lee that the state had approved the benefits.

When he appealed, he didn’t present witnesses who had been threatened by the former worker. He was told that hearsay about the threats wasn’t admissible.

He appealed to the Unemployment Insurance Commission and prevailed after presenting at least one witness who had been threatened by the former employee, Lee said.

Another employer referred to the Sun Journal declined to speak on the record. The fourth employer said he had only two employees and hadn’t any direct experience with the hearing process. He referred the Sun Journal to an inn owner in Freeport, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Among the list of employees who reportedly complained to the governor about the hearing process was Eric Hodgkins of Livermore Falls.

He said he was laid off in December as a division manager for a roofing company.

He complained that it took six weeks from the time he filed for unemployment benefits to hear from the state, then another four weeks to get a decision ruling in his favor, he said.

His former employer appealed. Three weeks later, a hearing was held on the appeal.

The hearing officer ruled in favor of the former employer, Hodgkin said, even after discovering the employer had lied.

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