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Maine Lawmaker Upset About Fine Waivers for Canadian Companies
01/13/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Two companies that were the first to be assessed fines in connection with their use of Canadian loggers have had those fines waived by Maine's labor commissioner. Last summer the two contractors acknowledged that they failed to notify the state or provide documentation about their use of Canadian workers in the Maine woods. And even though the commissioner himself imposed fines of $10,000 and $15,000 apiece, he had a change of heart after meeting with company representatives and their attorney.

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Originally Aired: 1/13/2012 5:30 PM
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 Duration:
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The use of Canadian workers in Maine's North Woods has long been a bone of contention for some northern Maine loggers. They say federal law that requires U.S. companies to give hiring preference to American workers isn't adequately enforced, and that too often, Canadians are getting jobs that they could do.

The debate came to a head in 2010 when the Maine Legislature, then controlled by Democrats, passed a law to impose additional restrictions on logging companies that hire foreign workers. But the law continues to meet resistance from the logging industry and others who find it unnecessary and onerous.

"I think this case illustrates why the Maine law is ill-advised and it's bad," says Charles Einsiedler, an attorney for Pepin Lumber and Les Transport Regi, Inc., that were the first to face a hearing by the Maine Bureau of Labor Standards for violating the law.

They admitted that they failed to inform the department within three days of hiring Canadian workers and of providing necessary documentation, but they said they were simply unaware of the requirements. "You've got all these administrative requirements and none of them go to finding work for Mainers," Einsiedler says.

He says the law was a drain on his clients. And so were the fines of $10,000 and $15,000 imposed by Maine Labor Commissioner Robert Winglass.  In late November, Einsiedler wrote a letter to Winglass, asking that he reverse his decision. Winglass politely declined but agreed to meet with him and the contractors to discuss the matter. And by December 9th, after the meeting, the commissioner reversed course.

"The fine was steep for the violation," Winglass says. "It was an administrative violation with no flexibility. I had a $10,000 requirement or higher in order to levy a fine, which I did initially. But then, my own staff came to me. We talked to the AG's office and I had reached a conclusion that this was just exceptional punishment for what they really did."

Commissioner Winglass says he also had concerns about Maine's wood supply and the ability of contractors to keep mills readily supplied with wood. The executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council agrees that could be a problem if the ground does not stay frozen and it's too muddy to harvest wood.

"I don't think we have a wood supply shortage. We have a wood harvesting capacity shortage," says Patrick Strauch. "In certain areas there aren't enough people to harvest the wood."

Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash says nothing about the commissioner's justification for waiving the fines makes sense.  "I never seen anything like that, you know? To fine somebody and then just rescind the fine and not tell anyone about it," he says.

Jackson is a logger who sponsored the original bill to strengthen the rules for hiring foreign workers. As a formal intervenor in the case, Jackson testified at the contractors' hearing in August. But he says he was never advised of the commissioner's meeting or his decision to waive the fines until this week.

"On Tuesday, I called over to the Department of Labor and everyone starts getting all sheepish. 'Well, geez, you know, the commissioner waived that fine.'" he says. "I said, 'Well, geez, I'm an intervenor on those cases--he's supposed to notify me of everything!'"

Jackson says Commissioner Winglass did call to apologize that he hadn't sent him a copy of the decision. As far as the meeting with the contractors and their attorneys, Winglass says he routinely meets with various parties to hear them out and he didn't think it was necessary to invite anyone else.

Jackson is now planning an appeal to the state board of arbitration. In the meantime, a bill that would loosen restrictions for companies that hire Canadian workers is expected to be taken up by the Legislature later this month.

 

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