AUGUSTA –– The director of the Maine Workers Compensation Board has agreed to appear before the Legislature’s labor committee to explain his decision to remove a claim injury resolution officer from cases involving the NewPage mill in Rumford.
Paul Sighinolfi, director of the board, has notified the committee that he’ll appear before the panel Wednesday. Democrats and labor advocates have accused him of interfering in the fair hearing process by removing a 20-year veteran hearing officer from complaints involving the Rumford mill after the company complained in 2011.
The hearing officer, Glen Goodnough, was never assigned any cases involving NewPage and was effectively removed from adjudicating 40 claims disputes that he would have otherwise reviewed. Sighinolfi claims his move was done without the knowledge of the LePage administration, which has been previously accused of siding with companies over workers. However, he acknowledged that his decision to set up a rotation of hearing officers to adjudicate NewPage cases came on the heels of a 2011 meeting between company officials and senior staff of the LePage administration.
Goodnough was never inserted into the NewPage rotation. Sighinolfi has said that Goodnough’s omission was a miscommunication between him and the staff.
The Democratic co-chairs of the labor committee Monday invited him to appear before the panel to explain his decision.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, co-chairman of the committee and a member of Local 900 of the United Steelworkers Union at the mill, said he was pleased that Sighinolfi would attend.
“We have to get to the bottom of what happened,” he said. “Often times, perception is reality and at first glance, it sure appears as though the system that is supposed to be impartial and fair has been tampered with. Maine workers need to have confidence that if they are injured on the job, through no fault of their own, that they will be treated fairly.”
Sighinolfi could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Patrick is one of several labor advocates who confronted Sighinolfi during a Workers Compensation Board meeting March 11, after discovering that Goodnough, who had been assigned to NewPage cases, hadn’t adjudicated any since mid-2011. Patrick said Sighinolfi gave conflicting answers about his decision, raising questions about whether high-ranking officials in the LePage administration gave the order or whether the director acted alone.
Sighinolfi told the Press Herald, which first reported his decision last week, that he took “unilateral” action to create a rotation of hearing officers soon after he was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage in 2011, in response to complaints from the mill manager that the officer was biased against the company in handling claims by its employees.
Labor advocates say the decision sent a message telling other hearing officers to decide more cases in favor of the mill. Several union officials likened Goodnough’s removal to last year’s controversy over the governor’s intervention in the work of unemployment claims hearing officers, while another described it as akin to allowing someone to pick their judge in a court case.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: