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

(Continued from page 1)

The understaffing and delays in the adjudication of claims put Maine’s hearing officers at the bottom of federal standards measuring timeliness of appeals, according to the commission. It recommended hiring six to 11 more front-end staffers and two or three more hearing officers.

The state’s eight officers together have handled an average of about 20 cases a week, making decisions on unemployment benefits that now average about $281 a week. According to federal data, Maine’s unemployment system handled 73,000 claims in 2007. That number increased to 155,000 between 2009 and 2010.

LEPAGE’S MEETING NOT ADDRESSED

The report did not address questions raised about the meeting earlier this year between LePage and the hearing officers.

Emails obtained by the Portland Press Herald through a Freedom of Access Act request showed that one of the hearing officers described the meeting as a “group scolding,” and added that the administration did not appreciate the importance of insulating quasi-judicial hearing officers from “public and political pressures.”

The public records request stemmed from a story in the Sun Journal of Lewiston on April 11 that said some of the eight to 10 hearing officers, who were not identified because they feared retribution, felt LePage had pressured them to decide more appeals in favor of employers.

In April, the Maine Sunday Telegram reviewed state and federal data and found little or no evidence to support the administration’s contention that the system is biased or that unemployment appeals decisions have been skewed against employers.

The federal records showed that employers consistently win most appeals, and that Maine’s hearing officers perform near the national average.

Allegations that LePage pressured the hearing officers prompted the Maine Unemployment Lawyers Association, whose members represent workers in unemployment cases, to ask the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate. The administration denied that the governor pressured the hearing officers, and said a visit by federal officials in August was a routine audit and a review of LePage’s concerns about “inconsistencies” and the overall quality of the unemployment compensation system.

The federal report may be released this week, said Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the watchdog arm of the Legislature. Ashcroft said the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee may have a chance to review those findings, as well as those by the special commission, when it convenes Thursday.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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