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Maine's Unemployment System Under Scrutiny
09/12/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Gov. Paul LePage says he's had numerous complaints from the business community alleging that the unemployment benefit appeals system is weighted against employers, and that hearing officers often side with workers. LePage has assigned a special six-member panel to review the system, and in its very first meeting today, the panel heard from advocates for organized labor, who worry that the panel's recommended changes could wind up hurting workers. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Don Fontaine, a Portland attorney specializing in labor law, says while some have criticized the unemployment appeals process as biased in favor of workers, the opposite is true.

"The hearing process puts the unemployed that appear before them at a significant disadvantage," Fontaine said. "They enter the hearing room with one or two strikes against them."

Fontaine, who was representing members of the Maine Education Association at the meeting, says that's because workers trying to obtain their unemployment benefits are less apt to be in a position to obtain legal representation going into the appeal process. A recent study, he says, of the approximately 12,000 hearings per year involving low-income workers prove his point.

"Only four times were they represented by Pine Tree Legal Assistance. They were represented only in one hearing by the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Maine, and they were represented at no times by the Maine Equal Justice Partners," Fontaine said. "These are people who have committed themselves to providing legal aid to the poor, but the number of hearings and the demand is just prohibitive. These are the figures."

The commission was charged to look into the fairness of the unemployment appeals system after reports surfaced that LePage had scolded unemployment hearing officers during a Blaine House luncheon in March, and allegedly claimed that too many cases were being decided in favor of unemployed workers.

LePage denies making the comments, and subsequently appointed the six-member commission to field complaints from employers and employees who would like to see changes in the process.

Tim Belcher, general counsel to the Maine State Employees Association, says the governor's decision to form the panel was perceived by some hearing officers as a form of coercion. Belcher also points to concerns about the use of hearsay used against workers in the appeals system. He says the blue ribbon panel should resist any efforts to admit hearsay evidence without allowing the worker the benefit of cross-examination.

"If I'm a co-worker of yours and I lie about you to our boss and I say, 'He stole from you and you should fire him,' - whether your employer can put that into the record as a piece of paper: 'Tim Belcher said you stole from him.' or whether you should be able to cross examine him - that's what this whole thing is about. And that's just so fundamental."

"Employers have to defend themselves, employees have to make their cases, but the burden always falls on the employer," said Bob Seavey, who manages a small company in the Auburn area.

Seavey says he would like the panel to not only look at the process that governs unemployment appeals but at the unemployment system as a whole, which he says is often misunderstood by all sides.

"I have been asking for years in the unemployment division, 'Is there a seminar that I can go to, does the state hold any courses for employers so that we know that we're following the letter of the law, so that we can avoid these conflicts to begin with?'" Seavey said. "And, you know, in 20 years I haven't seen anything come up."

Former Maine Supreme Court Justice Dan Wathan, who serves as co-chair of the commission, says Seavey's recommendations are exactly the kind of input the panel will weigh before it files its report with the governor on Dec. 1.



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