You could be excused for being a bit confused about what happened with the Maine Department of Labor’s unemployment compensation program. A U.S. Department of Labor investigation, and a prior state review, found real problems that the LePage administration intervened in what is supposed to be an impartial hearing process and that some practices used by hearing officers could be improved. Yet the political uproar and subsequent backlash have been deafening, from both sides of the aisle, making it harder to actually change anything.
“I think he should be impeached,” Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said of Gov. Paul LePage, getting right to the political point. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, insinuated the Labor Department investigation was partisan and essentially wrong: “Democrats are quick to politicize a report from the Obama administration criticizing the governor for his hands-on approach to an unemployment appeals process that many have viewed as being too anti-business.”
The fact is that the unemployment appeals process is not anti-business. A report by the governor’s Unemployment Reform Blue Ribbon Commission, released Dec. 1, 2013, “found no direct or intentional bias evidenced toward employers or employees.” And the U.S. labor department report, released Thursday, “did not find any evidence of decisions being made on the basis of pro-employer or pro-claimant preference.” Politicians’ assertions that do not rely on the body of evidence are self-serving distractions.
Indeed, the federal report found that LePage is the one with the pro-employer preference, and he conveyed that bias during a Blaine House luncheon last year to staff who are bound by law to provide a fair hearing to Maine residents whose claims for unemployment compensation were denied. Hearing officers also consider employers’ appeals challenging state decisions to award benefits to former employees.
The federal report also determined that hearing officers sometimes use unduly restrictive practices, such as discouraging the use of corroborating evidence and then ruling against the party whose witnesses were excluded on the basis of lack of evidence. It had recommendations for improving consistency.
Practices, of course, are easier to change than a culture. The federal report suggests not only that LePage himself intervened in the appeals process but that political appointees did so as well, sometimes interviewing hearing officers or their supervisors about specific rulings.
“The level and nature of this participation has, at times, exceeded the normal management prerogative of managing the day-to-day operations of (the Division of Administrative Hearings) and could be perceived as an attempt to influence the appeals decision-making process in favor of employers. When added to this internal (Maine Department of Labor) pressure, the governor’s direct intervention could be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate or direct hearing officers to view employers more sympathetically,” according to the federal report.
Whether LePage intended to influence the hearing officers’ decisions or not, they certainly interpreted his expectations to mean they should be more sympathetic of employers. Yet, despite the findings, LePage still had the gall to assert Thursday that the federal review “found no evidence of wrongdoing, but uses conjecture and supposition to come to a conclusion that has no basis in fact.” Unless he has results from a separate investigation he’d like to share, LePage isn’t in a position to be arguing about the outcome of an investigation into his own administration.
Officials have been working to improve the Division of Administrative Hearings’ practices, and that good work should continue. But the political blather does nothing to help further intelligent discussion about the other problem: how to insulate the appeals process from, as the review puts it, “outside pressures that might compromise even the appearance of fairness and impartiality.” In the name of responsible governance, political leaders need to fix the problem, not see who can churn out the most ridiculous political statements.
They generate little confidence in the state’s ability to protect the integrity of an impartial unemployment appeals process and keep it safe from intimidation when they are busy trying to intimidate one another.