AUGUSTA, Maine — The Senate chairman of the Legislature’s labor committee says the head of Maine’s workers’ compensation board should resign after admitting he reassigned a hearing officer when a Rumford paper mill complained how its cases were being decided.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said Monday he would ask the director, Paul Sighinolfi, to come before his committee in the coming weeks to be questioned about his actions.
“I’d like to see the truth come out, and I’m pretty sure Director Sighinolfi should step down,” Patrick said. “I think he overstepped his bounds.”
Sighinolfi, executive director of the workers’ compensation board, said he made the staffing change in 2011 after a manager from NewPage told him the company felt that cases against the mill were being decided unfairly.
Each of Maine’s workers’ compensation hearing officers are assigned to a geographic district in the state. All NewPage cases were handled by Glen Goodnough, who works out of Lewiston.
After receiving the complaint, Sighinolfi removed Goodnough from all NewPage cases and assigned them instead to a rotation of three other hearing officers.
On Monday, the director said he saw the decision as part of the responsibility to handle the day-to-day operations of the agency, and not one that required board involvement.
He also said that he did not think Goodnough made any bad decisions involving NewPage and the staff rotation he implemented was a fair way to address the company’s concern.
“There was a perception that there was a problem,” he said in an interview. “One way to demonstrate there wasn’t a problem was to have his cases decided by others and see the same results. And I think that’s what happened.”
As first reported by the Portland Press Herald, Sighinolfi divulged the staffing change during a meeting of the workers’ compensation board on March 11 when confronted by union officials and Patrick, who works at the NewPage mill and is a member of United Steelworkers Local 900.
The revelation was a surprise to labor leaders and to the other members of the board, who Sighinolfi said were not notified of the complaint nor the reassignment.
Since then, Democrats and labor leaders have blasted Sighinolfi, saying the unilateral move by the director subverted the impartial nature of the hearing process and sends a message to other hearing officers that they must favor employers or face reassignment.
They say if NewPage didn’t like how a case was decided, the company could appeal. If questions remained, they say Sighinolfi should have sought the board’s input in reassigning Goodnough.
The controversy also comes against a backdrop of a labor relations dispute at the NewPage mill. On Monday, union officials at the mill said the company unfairly denied payment on workers’ compensation claims in an effort to save money and threatened to shut down the mill if workers’ compensation costs are not contained.
The state workers’ compensation board is composed of three labor advocates and three business advocates, with the executive director casting the tie-breaking vote when the sides cannot agree. According to an audio recording of the March 11 meeting, those two sides disagree on whether Sighinolfi broke from protocol in reassigning Goodnough at NewPage’s request.
“To find this out two years into a rotation that nobody knew anything about, because one employer complained, I guess it just bothers me that one employer could have that much pull with the executive director,” said Emery Deabay, a USW member from Bucksport and labor representative on the board, during the meeting.
Andy Charles, owner of Haven’s Candies in Westbrook, is one of the business representatives on the board. He said he had no problem with how Sighinolfi handled NewPage’s complaint.
“It sounds like there’s some horrible issues between labor and management at that mill, outside of anything that has to do with the workers’ comp board,” Charles said during the meeting. “In the context of what they’re dealing with up there, I understand how things could be perceived differently, but I still think the way you dealt with it is appropriate.”
Between 40 and 60 cases involving NewPage have been decided by the three hearing officers in rotation since 2011.
Anthony Lyons, spokesman for NewPage, said the mill did not have concerns about any specific hearing officer, but about fairness in the workers’ compensation process. It was one of many issues discussed with Sighinolfi, Gov. Paul LePage and senior members of the governor’s administration, he said.
Lyons said Monday the personnel change had been helpful.
“The decisions have been fairer and more balanced since we started having cases heard by a variety of officers,” he said.
Workers’ compensation claims are not always decided completely in favor of one side or the other. For that reason, Sighinolfi said the board does not have records that indicate whether cases were decided differently before or after the rotation was implemented.
He also said Goodnough was returned to the rotation after the March 11 board meeting.
For his part, Sighinolfi believes this controversy is being manufactured for political gain, as unions try to draw parallels between his decision to reassign Goodnough and the scandal caused when LePage held a meeting with unemployment officials last year.
A federal investigation found that during that meeting, LePage had acted with “what could be perceived as a bias toward employers” and that hearing officers could have interpreted expectations that they needed to be more sympathetic toward employers.
“Somebody is trying to make a tie between what happened in the Department of Labor and what’s happening here. But this is apples and that is oranges. There’s no connection whatsoever,” Sighinolfi said.
“I’ve got to think politics are involved. The labor unions are coming out saying, ‘Look what the governor is doing,’ but he didn’t do it. I did it, because I thought it was the way to run things smoothly.”
Patrick has little patience for that claim.
“If there’s a political problem, it’s that [Sighinolfi] made this decision, behind closed doors,” he said. “He didn’t think he’d ever get caught, but here we are.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.