Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman speaks remotely during a May 6 legislative committee meeting in Augusta.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers from both parties laid into the Maine Department of Labor Thursday after the department declined to send a representative to a legislative committee meeting to discuss unemployment issues at the order of Gov. Janet Mills.

The Legislature’s labor and housing committee convened via Zoom Thursday to discuss continued struggles with the state’s unemployment system, and had invited Commissioner Laura Fortman, or another representative from the labor department, to attend.

The absence showcased the growing tension between the Democratic-led Legislature and the governor, also a Democrat. A Mills spokesperson said Thursday the governor had told legislative leaders when hearings were announced last week that Fortman would be unlikely to be able to attend.

Fortman appeared at a similar hearing in May, when she announced that the state was planning to hire an additional 138 workers to assist with claims. Although more than $650 million in unemployment has been paid since mid-March, some workers have yet to receive benefits.

“It is unconscionable for any administration to refuse to answer questions from constituents who have reached out to us, their representatives, for help,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, the co-chair of the labor panel.

A spokesperson for Mills’ office said it was “disingenuous” for Bellows to “feign surprise” at Fortman’s absence, citing earlier conversations, though Bellows acknowledged in the hearing that executive branch officials had indicated the labor department was unlikely to make an appearance. She said she had attempted to persuade them otherwise.

In a written statement, Mills said the department was “working hard to distribute benefits to those who qualify” and turn back a recent wave of fraudulent claims being investigated by state and federal law enforcement.

“Given all of this, I directed Commissioner Fortman to remain engaged in her work today and to continue to push out benefits to Maine people who desperately need them — a goal lawmakers share,” the governor said. “The Department of Labor will continue to keep legislators apprised in writing of all significant developments.”

Republicans on the committee were incensed and brought forward a motion to formally call for Fortman’s resignation, which Bellows determined was technically allowed, but it was tabled on a 6-5 vote along party lines.

Rep. Richard Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, said he was “flabbergasted,” saying the hearing should have been an opportunity for legislators to convey questions from the public to the department.

“If it is going to be the case where the commissioner is no longer going to be available to the committee on labor and housing, perhaps it is time for her to tender her resignation,” Bradstreet said.

Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers

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