Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Steve Mistler firstname.lastname@example.org
State House Bureau
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The first line of defense is the intake staff at state unemployment offices, the fact-finders who weigh a claim against the circumstances of an employee's departure.
The hearing officer, often trained as an attorney, settles disputes between employees and their former employers.
"Essentially, they're law judges," said Shari Broder, who was a part-time hearing officer at the state Labor Department from 1996 to 2002. "They hear both sides of a case and make a decision based on the law."
Despite their legal training, hearing officers earn relatively modest salaries. The most senior officer is currently paid $56,000 a year plus benefits, while junior and part-time officers make $20,000 to $32,000 a year, according to state salary data.
The eight officers together handle an average of about 20 cases a week, making decisions on unemployment benefits that now average about $281 a week.
If a worker or employer disagrees with a hearing officer's ruling, they can appeal the case to the Unemployment Compensation Commission, a panel whose three members are appointed to six-year terms by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.
LITTLE EVIDENCE OF SYSTEM PROBLEMS
Jennifer Duddy, the only commissioner appointed by LePage, attended the Blaine House meeting. She has sharply criticized the officers, saying their decisions on what evidence to admit in hearings amount to a "repeated and horrific miscarriage of justice," according to Linda Rogers-Tomer, the chief hearing officer.
Rogers-Tomer attended LePage's meeting, met with Duddy again on April 1 and wrote notes on the encounter that the Press Herald obtained under a Freedom of Access Act request to LePage's office and the Department of Labor.
But there is scant evidence of a miscarriage of justice in either state or federal records.
The Unemployment Compensation Commission, on which Duddy serves, has heard 373 appeals of hearing officer decisions since Dec. 1. Only six of them were remanded for errors relating to evidence issues, according to state Labor Department records.
The federal Employment and Training Administration, which oversees state unemployment programs and sent the two auditors to Maine last week, audits the the appeals process four times a year.
The federal agency evaluates the performance of hearing officers according to 31 different criteria, including perceived bias toward employees or employers, attitude, leading questions and how they handle evidence.
The audit results are expressed on a scale of 1 to 100, with a score of 80 being the federal minimum. Maine has averaged a score of 91 over the past 10 years, below the national average of 98 but above the federal standard.
In the past three years, Maine's score has increased: from 93.5 in 2010 to 93.75 in 2011 to 95 in 2012.
In addition, federal guidelines require that claims disputes are settled promptly.
Hearing officers have to settle 60 percent of their cases within 30 days or 80 percent within 45 days to conform with federal mandates.
Langley, with the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, said the reason is twofold: First, to ensure that those who qualify for benefits receive them quickly. Second, to ensure that those who shouldn't qualify can't collect for too long.
It doesn't always happen.
"The Great Recession has put a lot of strain on the (unemployment system)," he said, adding that a lot of state systems are under stress because of declining federal funding and the increased claims.
Maine hearing officers did their worst work after the recession hit in 2008 and claims skyrocketed, driving up caseloads and slowing action on appeals.
In 2009, audits show that the performance of Maine's appeals hearings plummeted to a point where the state was nearly out of compliance with federal mandates. It finished the year 1 point above the minimum acceptable score.
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