AUGUSTA — State lawmakers are pressing the Department of Labor to add to its unemployment bureau staff and expand the ways in which people can apply for jobless benefits in the wake of widespread concern about the beleaguered claims system, which is under investigation by a watchdog agency over allegations of mismanagement and record-destroying.

Lawmakers also recently approved amending language in a report on an unemployment bill, while continuing to express their concern over the controversial unemployment filing system known as ReEmployME. All the while, the Labor Department maintains it is innocent of all charges and that lawmakers have the wrong information.

The joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, chaired by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, spoke for about an hour Wednesday at a hearing on the amendment, which Fecteau introduced during language review. He explained that the amendment requires the state’s Department of Labor to fill vacant positions in the department, to post notice of the vacant positions, and to create a voicemail and call-back component for claimants.

The amendment also adopts the department’s preferred method of having past employers within a certain time period pay into the insurance fund on a proportional basis.

Finally, Fecteau said the amendment would allow claimants who were unable to get their benefits during the first phase of the filing system’s rollout to reapply with the department. However, this provision doesn’t guarantee they would be approved.

Nina McLaughlin, the department’s director of policy and legislative affairs, said during the hearing that the department had a number of concerns about the amendment. She said the positions the amendment called for replacing were no longer relevant, as directed by the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation. Two nonrelevant positions came to mind, she said, but she couldn’t speak specifically as to why they were not relevant. Posting notice of employment is a human resources thing, she said, and not something that gets legislated.

Fecteau and Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, pushed back.

Fecteau said he “respectfully disagreed” with McLaughlin, saying the positions would be relevant again when the department moved forward with a rollout of a new system on the business side of things this summer. “They are relevant to the business side,” he said.

Bellows pushed back against a fiscal note attached by the department, saying it shouldn’t cost more to fill positions that had already existed.

Fecteau pushed back against a fiscal note attached to the notion of creating a voicemail.

McLaughlin said the 800 number for claimants never had a voicemail, and that it would be expensive to upgrade that system to include a voicemail and callback option, and to provide staff to transcribe messages and call claimants back.

“The phone system that we have in place to handle people calling in to do claims, that is an automated line that would require an upgrade,” McLaughlin said.

Bellows said it appeared the department was attaching these fiscal notes to dissuade legislators from the fixes they have asked for.

“I don’t see an issue with giving people a response,” Fecteau said.

The debate over the unemployment filing system began immediately after it was launched in early December, with claimants saying they weren’t getting their benefits. A leaked confidential memo that was obtained by the Morning Sentinel described a toxic environment within the department, where the system was rushed out and records of claimant complaints were destroyed. The Government Oversight Committee recently voted to launch an investigation into the Department of Labor at Fecteau’s request. The department denied all wrongdoing on the same day Fecteau submitted his request.

“The accusations of improper handling of information are baseless and unequivocally false,” Labor Commissioner John Butera wrote in a response on March 22.

At the Wednesday hearing, McLaughlin said ReEmployME was better than the previous filing system, which often crashed and was inefficient. However, Bellows said that before the new system was launched, she had received zero complaints about the old system. She said part of the problem involves filing a work search history, which must be done through the online system; whereas in past years, it could be done on paper or through other alternatives.

“We’re not debating the system,” Bellows said. “That train has left the station $90 million ago.”

McLaughlin said claimants can file using alternative methods. They can go into a career center and get help, or call in and someone can enter their information for them. McLaughlin admitted that the information would have to be entered into ReEmployME one way or another.

“The department has been taking claims over the phone this entire time,” she said. “That has never been unavailable to claimants.”

Bellows said the system was not working, that there are many who cannot use computers, can’t visit the career centers or are unable to get through on the phone. She asked why the department was unwilling to go back to the old way that had worked.

Differences still remain regarding filing the work search portion of the claim.

The department maintains that claimants can file in multiple ways. In a memo to the legislative committee sent weeks after the allegations had first been made, Butera refuted the claims that work search can be done only online. He stated that 90 percent to 92 percent of claimants file online through ReEmployME, 3 percent file through a customer service representative, 5 percent file through the automated phone system and less than 2 percent file through paper submitted by the employer. “And our customer service representatives have taken over 4,500 work searches since deployment over the phone,” he writes.

Butera stated that the department “abides by federal requirements and guidance, and has always offered a telephonic alternative as well as the option of walking in to one of our twelve CareerCenters statewide for assistance.”

However, legislators, including Fecteau and Bellows, have called that false, saying the department announced it was moving away from paper filing, that the department and Bureau of Unemployment Compensation are not staffed properly to handle the volume of calls, and the phone lines don’t have methods to file the work search online successfully.

A message to the Augusta CareerCenter for clarification on the ways in which claimants can file was referred back to Labor Department spokesperson Laura Hudson, who said all questions have to be submitted in writing.

Volk said she believed that the number of calls was down significantly from earlier this year, and while Bellows and Fecteau were hearing from affected claimants, she was not hearing those same stories.

“I understand this was an issue,” she said. “I’m not sure this continues to be an issue. It’s 5:30 p.m. (at the Wednesday hearing). I feel as though we’ve talked about this over and over and over again. People have different versions of what they feel is going on. I don’t feel like we’re going to solve that now.”

McLaughlin said that in the past, the department would audit selected claimants on their work search. Now everyone is required to file his or her work search history. She said she was confident the department would not return to paper filing.

“We’ve taken over 4,000 by phone,” she said. “It can be done by phone, in person, or self-service system, which most people opt for right now.”

Volk said perhaps people had experienced challenges because they weren’t used to having to file weekly work search histories.

 

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