Friday, March 7, 2014
By Steve Mistler firstname.lastname@example.org
State House Bureau
Fairness. Inconsistency. A broken system.
Those are the words the LePage administration has been using to explain why it summoned Maine's unemployment claims hearing officers to a controversial lunch meeting with the governor at the Blaine House last month.
But state and federal data reviewed by the Maine Sunday Telegram offer little or no evidence to support the administration's contention that the system is broken, or that unemployment appeals decisions have been skewed against employers.
In fact, the records illustrate that employers consistently win most appeals, and that Maine's hearing officers perform near the national average.
An analysis of U.S. Department of Labor audits and recent reports by the Maine Department of Labor shows the following:
• Since 2003, quarterly audits mandated by the U.S. Department of Labor show that Maine's hearing officers have an average appeals performance score of 91 on a scale of 100. That's about 7 points below the national average but 11 points above the federally required score of 80.
• According to Maine Department of Labor data on cases involving worker misconduct, employers have won an average of 62 percent of appeals filed by workers and decided by hearing officers since 2003.
• Over the past 10 years, employers have won 75 percent of appeals in which workers sought benefits because they claimed they were fired from their jobs.
• Hearing officer rulings have been fairly consistent. In the 12,675 cases heard from 2003 through 2012, the number of appeals won by workers accused of misconduct has hovered between 36 percent and 42 percent.
"I haven't heard concerns about the quality of Maine's appeals system," said Brian Langley, the unemployment insurance director for the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, a national organization representing state administrators of unemployment insurance laws.
DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF EVENTS
What happened at the Blaine House luncheon with LePage is a matter of sharp dispute.
The Sun Journal, in an April 11 story, reported that 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.
That allegation prompted the Maine Unemployment Lawyers Association, whose members represent workers in unemployment cases, to ask the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate what happened at LePage's meeting.
Apparently in response to that request, two auditors from the federal Employment and Training Administration traveled to Augusta last week. They met twice with Laura Boyett, the director of the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, according to state Labor Department visitors records.
The LePage administration offers a different account of events.
It denies that LePage pressured the hearing officers, saying those allegations are politically motivated and based on anonymous media reports.
Spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the federal officials came to Maine not to investigate what occurred at the Blaine House meeting but to conduct a routine audit, and to look into LePage's concerns about "inconsistencies" and the overall quality of the unemployment compensation system.
The administration says it has been contacted by businesses that were concerned about the fairness of the unemployment appeals process, and LePage has cited his own experience as general manager of Marden's Surplus and Salvage.
Employers have historically been sensitive to appeals that award benefits to workers. The reason: More unemployment claims drive up the rates that employers pay into a trust that funds the unemployment benefit program. The more unemployment claims or appeals rulings that go against an employer, the more that employer pays into the fund.
HOW THE HEARINGS WORK
The hearing officers at the heart of the controversy are the second line of defense in ensuring that Mainers who are entitled to unemployment benefits receive them and that those who are fired for misconduct, or who quit their jobs voluntarily, don't.
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