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Head of Workers Comp Board Accused of Favoring Business Over Labor
03/21/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

The head of Maine's Workers Compensation Board is blaming what he calls "crossed wires" for allegations that he unfairly favored business over workers' interests. The story came to light following an investigation by the Portland Press Herald, which reported that Paul Sighinolfi removed an injury claims hearing officer from cases involving the New Page paper mill in Rumford at the request of the company.

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This revelation prompted an angry response from labor advocates.

"And the questions that this raises is what the hell's wrong with this administration? We've got to get people in there that are fair and balanced," said John Patrick, a maintenance mechanic at the mill as well as a Democratic State Senator for Rumford.

He said he's dismayed that the decision to remove the officer from the New Page hearings was MADE in secret two-and-a-half years ago, and was not publicly disclosed until it came up at a board meeting on March 11.

"I think this is something terrible," he said. "I think it's something that shows that the LePage administration is totally negative against workers. The executive director I think has lost a lot of credibility."

"Here's the story," said Paul Sighinolfi. "There was a suggestion that he may have been deciding cases not particularly favorable to New Page."

The "he" Sighinolfi, executive director of the Maine Workers Compensation Board, is referring to is Glenn Goodnough, the former hearing officer for the region that includes the New Page mill in Rumford.

In 2011, shortly after his appointment by Governor LePage, Sighinolfi was at a meeting with representatives of New Page as well as administration officials.

This meeting, he said, is where New Page officials suggested to him that the officer deciding workers comp cases in Rumford, i.e. Glenn Goodnough, was not being fair in handling claims against the company.

"No-one alleged bias," Sighinolfi said. "There was a suggestion that within the decisional range that these people decide cases, the hearing officers decide cases, that he was on the outer edge."

New Page Mill in Rumford

And the upshot of this, said New Page spokesman Tony Lyons, was that the cost of workers comp insurance for the Rumford facility was hurting the mill's competitiveness.

"In 2011 we were basically running about double what the costs were at other New Page mills, to the tune of about $5 million annually," he said.

Sighinolfi decided the best and most reasonable course of action would be to set up a rotation of four hearing officers, to hear the injury cases of New Page's Rumford workers. He said it was a decision that was made unilaterally without any involvement from the Governor's office. And he said Goodnough, was not meant to be excluded.

"The rotation was intended to include him, so there would be four hearing officers deciding their cases," said Sighinolfi. "And if anybody had a question about fairness, clearly this would demonstrate we could be as fair as possible."

Sighinolfi said he didn't know Goodnough was not part of the rotation until a few days ago.

He said it all stems from a miscommunications between him and his staff.

"When the message was sent down, a wire must have been crossed, and believe it or not I was not hold about that until the board meeting last week," he said.

This explanation does nothing to quell the anger of organized labor, said Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO. The bottom line, he said, is that this kind of tampering would be considered highly unethical in the Maine court system.

"It should be viewed no differently here," Schlobohm said. "These are impartial judges and when a company call up and essentially pick a different judge, or express their dislike for a certain impartial judge, that has a chilling effect on the entire system, and it allows employers to put their thumbs on the system in a completely inappropriate way."

There are no data currently available to show what, if any, impact Goodnough's removal had on workers comp cases at the New Page mill in Rumford.

Spokesman Tony Lyons said the company is unlikely to share that information. But he did say that while workers comp costs are still high at the mill, they are "somewhat" reduced from the $5 million spent in 2011.

Photo by Just Us 3 on Flickr

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