December 11, 2013

Panel: No bias in Maine unemployment claims dispute process

A special panel finds several flaws but contradicts a claim of Gov. LePage, who drew fire for meeting with hearing officers.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A special commission formed by the governor has found no evidence of bias in Maine’s unemployment claims dispute process, but reported Tuesday that severe understaffing has caused delays in benefit payments and, potentially, overpayments by employers.

The findings contradict claims by Gov. Paul LePage earlier this year that the system is biased and broken, but they support some employers’ complaints that “chronic and burdensome” process delays and some disallowance of evidence can lead to inconsistent fact-finding and rulings.

The commission’s report follows a high-profile controversy in which the governor was accused of upbraiding unemployment hearing officers during a meeting at the Blaine House.

That meeting and complaints about unemployment dispute hearings triggered an investigation by federal authorities, who were asked to determine whether LePage interfered with a process designed to be impartial.

The governor later formed the commission by executive order to determine whether there was evidence of bias by hearing officers who review disputes between employers and employees.

There is “no direct or intentional bias toward employers or employees” in the adjudication process, says the executive summary of the report. The panel attributed suggestions of bias to an “incomplete understanding of existing law” and the burden of proof that employers must show that an employee was fired for misconduct or quit voluntarily.

The commission also found that the unemployment claims system is “vastly understaffed,” causing delays that could prevent benefits from reaching laid-off workers or cause overpayments by employers.

LEPAGE CITES SUPPORT FOR CONCERNS

The commission was led by Daniel Wathen, a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice, and George Jabar, a Waterville lawyer and Kennebec County commissioner. Advocates for the unemployed and business interests also served on the panel.

LePage, in a written statement, focused on the deficiencies the panel found rather than the absence of bias. The administration said it plans to submit legislation to clarify the definition of employee misconduct and address staffing needs.

“It confirmed several of my concerns surrounding payments to people who are later found ineligible to receive benefits, problems associated with delayed receipt of benefits, lack of effective communication necessary to standardize decision-making, and inconsistent application of evidence standards relating to business records,” LePage said. “These are serious flaws in the system.”

Democrats suggested that the governor overstepped when he invited the hearing officers to the Blaine House in March.

House Democratic leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said in a prepared statement that the “report confirms what we’ve known all along: the only bias or inappropriate behavior here was the governor’s intimidation of these neutral arbiters. Bullying is no way to govern.”

The hearing officers are part of a process that determines whether unemployed workers receive benefits or whether they have been fired for misconduct or quit their jobs voluntarily.

Employers have historically been sensitive to appeals that award benefits to workers. More unemployment claims drive up the rates that employers pay into a trust that funds the unemployment benefits program. The more unemployment claims or appeals rulings against an employer, the more that employer pays into the fund.

Defenders of the system say the unemployment claims process is designed to put the burden of proof on employers.

PATH TO FIX PROBLEMS, UNDERSTAFFING

Peter Gore, vice president for advocacy for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the report may give policymakers a blueprint to fix problems with the process in the next legislative session.

Still, Gore said some in the business community maintain that the system is tilted toward employees. Workers who are denied claims will feel it favors businesses, Gore said. “It’s the nature of the system,” he said.

The commission found that hearing officers should allow some hearsay evidence by employers at the beginning of an appeal, and it called on the state to boost staffing to handle an increasing number of claims.

(Continued on page 2)

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