Lawmakers responded with fury and frustration Thursday after the state’s top labor official failed to attend a committee briefing to answer questions about the problems plaguing the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, co-chair of the Labor and Housing Committee, said at the briefing that she was astonished that Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman did not attend the midmorning hearing, and that the committee had received no formal communication from the state Department of Labor.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

It was “unconscionable” that no one from Gov. Janet Mills’ administration was available to answer lawmakers’ questions while thousands of Mainers cannot access unemployment benefits months after the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, she said.

Democrats on the committee spoke out when former Republican Gov. Paul LePage refused to allow members of his administration to attend hearings, Bellows said.

“It was wrong then and it is wrong now,” she said.

But Gov. Janet Mills’ spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said the committee members were merely “feigning surprise,” and the administration had made it clear to legislative leaders last week that Fortman was unlikely to attend the briefing.

The Labor and Housing Committee intends to hold a virtual hearing so Maine workers and employers can voice their concerns and ask questions about the unemployment situation. No one was prepared for the avalanche of unemployment claims the department faced at the height of the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, but months later there are many outstanding issues and questions about its response, Bellows said.

“We are looking to partner with the administration on these issues,” she said. “We cannot be allies without being part of the conversation, especially if our concerns or the concerns of our constituents are dismissed.”

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, puts out nameplates before Thursday’s meeting of the Labor and Housing Committee. Members began the session seated in every other chair around two horseshoe tables before most members left for separate offices to participate via Zoom for the rest of the meeting. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

In an interview, Bellows said she has a long list of questions about flaws in the state’s unemployment system. She has spoken with constituents who have spent months trying to file claims, have not received the correct benefits or have now been shut out of benefits because their claims were flagged as fraudulent.

The computer system used by the state, called ReEmploy ME, has “been a disaster since day one,” Bellows said in an interview. “It is not just user-unfriendly, it is user-adversarial.”

The committee was never told the Department of Labor would not send anyone to the briefing, even though that may have been communicated to the Senate president and speaker of the House, Bellows said. Maine House Speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, did not respond to a request for an interview on Thursday about the department’s ongoing issues.

Every member of the committee voiced frustration with a lack of communication and transparency from the Department of Labor. Most of them related stories from constituents who reported hitting dead ends within the unemployment system and said they had not been able to receive benefits for weeks or months.

“The decision not to allow the committee of oversight to ask questions for the people is incredibly disrespectful,” said committee Co-Chair Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland. He and others said the department needs to start giving answers.

“‘We are working on it’ is not an answer the people of Maine or this committee or the legislators of the state of Maine will accept any longer from the administration,” Sylvester said.

Mills said in a statement that Fortman stood before the Labor and Housing Committee for four hours in a briefing last month, “respectfully answering questions but not always having that respect returned in kind.”

“Meanwhile, the Labor Department is working hard to distribute benefits to those who qualify and turn back a nationwide wave of fraudulent claims perpetrated by organized crime,” Mills said.

The department has distributed about $650 million to tens of thousands of Mainers thrown out of work during the coronavirus pandemic. It also has removed 12,000 initial claims and more than 16,000 continuing claims determined to be fraudulent, it said Thursday.

“Given all of this, I directed Commissioner Fortman to remain engaged in her work today and to continue to push out benefits to Maine people who desperately need them – a goal lawmakers share,” Mills said. “The Department of Labor will continue to keep legislators appraised in writing of all significant developments.”

Republicans on the committee also were furious Thursday. Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, said the unemployment system has been a “total and complete failure.”

Rep. Dick Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, suggested it was time for Fortman to tender her resignation, and Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley, introduced a resolution to demand Fortman step down. The measure was tabled on a 6-5 vote along party lines.

The hearing occurred a day after 62 lawmakers signed onto a letter from Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, asking the Department of Labor for increased staffing to handle claims, more transparency with the Legislature and better communication with the public.

“While we recognize that it takes time to train new staff and implement new programs, we are now 10 weeks into this crisis with no end in sight, and limited additional resources have been directed to the Maine Department of Labor,” the lawmakers said. “We find this deeply troubling, as we have heard from hundreds of constituents who have unresolved unemployment claims and are struggling to make ends meet.”

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