September 13, 2013

Maine jobless compensation system called too complex

Commissioners hear about a system that is difficult to navigate for both employers and the unemployed.

By PAUL KOENIG Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA – Employee rights advocates, business owners and state employees Thursday described an unemployment compensation system that is complex and difficult to navigate for both employers and the unemployed.

click image to enlarge

Commission member George Jabar, left, listens as Daniel Wathen, right, questions Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli on Thursday during a meeting of the panel looking into unemployment reform in Augusta.

Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal

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Jim Betts, a retired state Department of Labor employee, testifies during Thursday’s hearing.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

About 10 people spoke during the first half of the six-hour public hearing held in front of a commission established to investigate the fairness and efficiency of the state's unemployment claim system.

They told stories of employers and employees not knowing how the process works and of an overwhelming caseload squeezing strained staffers trying to resolve the claims in time to meet federal deadlines.

Gov. Paul LePage created the six-member commission in April amid allegations that he and his appointee to the state's Unemployment Compensation Commission pressured unemployment hearing officers during a luncheon in March to make more pro-business rulings in appeals decisions that determine whether workers receive benefits.

At the time, LePage called those allegations "politically motivated" but said in April that he created the commission because he wants to make sure the system is "fair and consistent for all Mainers."

The commission is supposed to file its report with any recommendations by Dec. 1.

Former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Daniel Wathen, one of the commission's co-chairmen, said initial findings reveal a system that's complicated with a lack of consistency through its multiple levels of appeals.

"It is one of the most complex processes that exist in state government, and that's not a good thing," Wathen said to one business owner who testified about the challenges she's encountered in her 13 years dealing with unemployment claims.

The first step in the process is for the staff at the state's unemployment offices to gather facts and weigh a claim against the circumstances of an employee's departure. Their decisions can be appealed to a hearing officer, who often conducts hearings with former employees and employers over the phone, Wathen said.

After that, a hearing officer's decision can be appealed to the Unemployment Insurance Commission, a three-member board in the Maine Department of Labor. Either party can then appeal to Superior Court, and finally to the state supreme court. "That's an incredible number of stops," Wathen said.

Maura Bragg, a hearing officer for the department's Division of Administrative Hearings, told commission members she agrees that more consistency among the three divisions of the state's process is needed and that there are too many levels of appeals.

Bragg said, however, that more staff is needed to handle the number of cases reaching the first appeal level. Each hearing officer must conduct 20 to 25 hearings per week, she said, in order to meet the 30-day timeline established by the federal government.

"If there are any inequities in the hearing process, they stem from budget cuts," Bragg said. "It's a grueling schedule for us, and we endure being yelled, cursed at and even have had to duck flying trash cans and fistfights."

Bragg briefly touched on the lunch in March organized by LePage, saying hearing officers now are required to hold records open if employers want to submit warnings or company policies. They didn't hold it open before, she said, and doing so further delays the process.

"To me, of course, the fact that anything came out of that luncheon as a change of procedure is pretty tough to swallow," Bragg said.

Jim Betts, who identified himself as a recently retired claims adjudicator for the department's Bureau of Unemployment, also said the number of cases handled by the first level is overwhelming.

"I have questions whether we're getting it right originally, and that's why appeals is seeing the number of cases they are," Betts said.

Business owner Colleen Bailey, at the hearing with her husband, Ed, criticized the process as unfair to employers at times and difficult to understand for both sides, describing challenges they've faced as owners of Dunkin' Donuts franchises in central Maine.

Bailey said the process is such a headache that she's considered just paying any former employee who files an unemployment claim.

"It is complicated. It is hard to work with. I'm ready to give up and let everyone collect, but I don't want to do that," she said. "I want to be fair to everybody."

Paul Koenig can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

pkoenig@mainetoday.com
 

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