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Maine Commission: No Bias by Unemployment Hearing Officers
12/10/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

A special bipartisan commission appointed by Gov. LePage has found that Maine's unemployment hearing officers show "no direct or intentional bias" toward employers or employees when they consider unemployment claims. But as Susan Sharon reports, the commission is recommending improvements for the system, including hiring additional staff.

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Chaired by former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court, Daniel Wathen, and Waterville attorney George Jabar, the Unemployment Reform Blue Ribbon Commission spent more than six months reviewing complaints raised about the consistency and objectivity of the unemployment adjudication process, looking at case files and interviewing current and former employees.

While no intentional bias was found on the part of hearing officers, a 25-page report identifies some key areas for improvement. Julie Rabinowitz, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Labor, says one of the most troubling findings is the inconsistent way officers admit business records into evidence.

"Because what that says is that when the law is not consistently applied people are not getting due process," she says. "And if the law was inconsistently applied in their case and they don't appeal, they've lost the decision where they should have actually perhaps won the decision. And so, for us, that's a big focus."

The report points out that employers are typically more dependent on business records, such as notes about workplace incidents and progressive discipline that demonstrate why someone is being discharged for misconduct. And this accounts for many of the complaints heard from employers.

The report recommends better training for hearing examiners and increased supervision by the Chief Hearing Officer. It also highlights how "vastly understaffed" the system is, resulting in "burdensome delay in providing needed benefits" and preventable overpayments.

The commission suggests hiring as many as six more adjudicators and two to three more hearing officers.

"We're looking at legislation right now that would allow us to increase the number of adjudicators who do those initial fact-findings without any impact to the general fund," Rabinowitz says. "It's critical that we balance increasing staff with the need to make sure that we're not using money that we don't have."

House Majority Leader Seth Berry says the report confirms what Democrats have been saying all along: "The only bias or inappropriate behavior here was the governor's intimidation of these neutral arbitors," Berry says.

Berry is referring to a Blaine House luncheon last March at which the governor allegedly pressured hearing officers to skew their decisions in favor of employers. Federal law requires the impartial administration of unemployment insurance claims.

Gov. LePage has denied the allegations, but a federal investigation is underway to determine whether the governor may have improperly interfered with the process. The state commission was not asked to investigate that question. But Berry says that remains the real issue.

"It's a question of how much pressure is coming, was coming, from the governor inappropriately and perhaps illegally in the interest of his administration and his agenda," Berry says.

A spokesperson for the governor did not return a call to MPBN by airtime. However, Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau released a statement saying the report confirms what the governor and he have long believed: that the unemployment system is broken.


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