State workers say LePage pressured them to deny jobless benefits

Posted Wednesday, April 17, 2013 in Investigation

State workers say LePage pressured them to deny jobless benefits

LePage at the State of the State address (credit Andi Parkinson)

by Gina Hamilton

AUGUSTA -- According to reporting by the Lewiston Sun Journal, at a meeting in March, Gov. Paul LePage allegedly pressured state employees to deny jobless benefits to workers in favor of employers. 

At the March 21 luncheon meeting, which required attendance, LePage scolded eight hearing officers and their supervisors, saying that too many cases on appeal from the Bureau of Unemployment were being decided in favor of employees, and that therefore, the officers were doing their jobs poorly.

If the Sun Journal's sources are correct, the governor engaged in unprecedented political interference in the hearing process at the Labor Department.  LePage said that when he fired an employee as business manager at Mardens, it was "always" for good reason. 

The Sun Journal is withholding the names of the sources because they fear retribution from the LePage administration, however, the Sun Journal spoke to nearly a dozen employees who attended the meeting.

The governor's office declined to comment on the story, as did the political appointees to the Labor Department.

The hearing officers' salaries are federally funded, and they informed the governor that they are required to adhere to federal guidelines.

LePage, who campaigned for governor on a pro-business platform, said at the luncheon that the actions of the hearing officers were destroying the business climate in Maine, according to sources.

Hearing officers had been told by their supervisors about a year and a half ago that they too often rule on appeals in favor of employees after a company owner apparently complained to the LePage administration following an appeals hearing that ended with a ruling in favor of the employee.

As a result, hearing officers were told to report to their supervisors all decisions they found favorable to employees before entering their formal rulings on those cases. That practice lasted only a few months.

Data requested by the Sun Journal from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that the number of cases successfully appealed by employees to administrative hearing officers declined slightly from 2011 to 2012. Over that same period, the number of cases successfully appealed by employers rose by a small percentage.

When a worker in Maine is fired, that worker can apply to the Maine Department of Labor's Bureau of Unemployment Compensation for benefits. Appeals of those fact-finding decisions are presented to a federally mandated level of administrative hearing officers, composed largely of lawyers, who are paid through federal funding and have to follow federal guidelines.

Appeals of those decisions go to the Unemployment Insurance Commission, the last stop within the agency. The three-member panel is composed of appointees of the governor. One serves as chair, one represents employees and one represents employers.

Keeping unemployment down is important to businesses, because the higher the number of employees who receive unemployment insurance, the higher the rate that the employer will have to pay to the state for the insurance in the future.

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