June 18, 2018
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Labor commissioner cites faults in unemployment appeals system; Democrats seek probe of alleged intimidation by LePage

Courtesy photo | BDN
Courtesy photo | BDN
Jeanne Paquette, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.
By Chris Williams, Sun Journal

PORTLAND, Maine — The head of the top appeals board at the Department of Labor said Thursday that unemployment claims officers at a lower level of appeals are “repeatedly” omitting evidence and testimony that are resulting in unfair hearings.

Jennifer Duddy, chairwoman of the Unemployment Insurance Commission, said she and Gov. Paul LePage shared those concerns with hearing officers at a March 21 luncheon hosted by LePage at the Blaine House.

The Sun Journal reported Thursday that a number of Labor Department employees allege LePage had pressured hearing officers at that luncheon to find more appeals in favor of employers and fewer in favor of workers.

Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette said Thursday that she and LePage have fielded many complaints from both business owners and workers who felt the hearing process was flawed.

Duddy and Paquette, who attended the luncheon (Paquette for only half an hour) said they felt LePage’s tone was cordial. They said they didn’t form the impression LePage was seeking to influence the outcome of hearing officers’ cases to be more favorable to the business community, as alleged by other sources who said they felt intimidated by the governor at that luncheon.

Paquette suggested the appeals system at her department was broken and needed to be fixed.

Duddy said she and the two other members of the Unemployment Insurance Commission (all are appointed by the governor, one representing labor and one representing business owners) felt there was a troubling trend of cases on appeal to them from the Division of Administrative Hearings where evidence and testimony that should have been considered had been excluded by hearings officers.

When she approached the chief hearings officer about the apparent problem, she said she was told that the hearings officers “don’t answer to the commission.”

Labor and Democratic legislative leaders reacted with outrage and calls for further investigation of the allegations that LePage might have intimidated state employees during the luncheon.

“The governor’s actions are not only legally and ethically reprehensible, they also undermine the economic security of Maine workers who have lost jobs through no fault of their own,” Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry said in a news release. “All Maine workers deserve a fair hearing.”

In a news release issued Thursday, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the governor’s actions could undermine federal labor law requirements that unemployment compensation hearings be conducted by impartial panels.

“If this is true, the governor’s actions represent political interference and intimidation,” Alfond said. “We are calling on Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette to repudiate these alleged remarks and ensure that the state employees can continue to serve as impartial judges in these hearings.”

“It is highly inappropriate for a chief executive to obstruct or influence an independent, impartial hearing process,” Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in the same release. “These are serious allegations. We are exploring all options to allow hearing officers to do their work independently and ensure fair outcomes for all Maine people.”

BDN Political Analyst Robert Long contributed to this report.

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