AUGUSTA – Democratic senators on the Legislature’s labor committee want the head of the Maine Workers Compensation Board to further explain his decision to remove a claims resolution hearing officer from cases involving the NewPage mill in Rumford.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said Monday that he planned to invite Executive Director Paul Sighinolfi to brief the committee soon.
Patrick, a member of Local 900 of the United Steelworkers Union at the mill, is one of several labor advocates who confronted Sighinolfi during a Workers Compensation Board meeting March 11, after discovering that a hearing officer assigned to NewPage cases hadn’t adjudicated any since mid-2011.
Patrick said Sighinolfi gave conflicting answers about his decision to the board and to the Portland Press Herald, raising questions about whether high-ranking officials in the LePage administration gave the order or whether the director acted alone.
Sighinolfi told the Press Herald, which first reported his decision last week, that he took “unilateral” action to create a rotation of hearing officers soon after he was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage in 2011, in response to complaints from the mill manager that the officer was biased against the company in handling claims by its employees.
The hearing officer, Glen Goodnough, was never assigned any cases involving NewPage and was effectively removed from adjudicating 40 claims disputes that he would have otherwise reviewed.
“(Sighinolfi) unilaterally screwed up the whole workers comp system because of his decision to take action against what he calls a liberal impartial judge,” Patrick said. “That sends a message to all the other judges that if a company, any company, in the state of Maine now has a problem with their perceived judgments against them, all they have to do is call director Sighinolfi or meet in some back room and he can get it taken care of. That’s not how we do it. It’s not fairness.”
Labor advocates say the decision sent a message telling other hearing officers to decide more cases in favor of the mill. Several union officials likened Goodnough’s removal to last year’s controversy over the governor’s intervention in the work of unemployment claims hearing officers, while another described it as akin to allowing someone to pick their judge in a court case.
Patrick said, “Every injured worker wants a shot at justice. Well, how can we when the whole justice system is run by one person?”
Sighinolfi could not be reached for comment Monday. He told the Press Herald last week that his decision was not without precedent. He said his predecessor, Paul Dionne, shifted hearing officers at least twice in his 18 years as director in the King and Baldacci administrations.
But Dionne said that he didn’t recall moving hearing officers, and that companies and workers frequently complained of bias when they lost claims disputes.
Patrick said the two instances of moving hearing officers occurred before the executive director position was established. Both decisions, he said, were approved by the compensation board.
LEPAGE STAFF PART OF DISCUSSIONS
Sighinolfi made his decision soon after the mill’s executives met with senior members of the LePage administration in 2011 to discuss regulatory issues.
Tony Lyons, a spokesman for NewPage, told the Press Herald that company officials expressed concern about worker compensation claims. He said the mill in Rumford paid $5 million for worker compensation insurance in 2011, twice as much as any of the other eight mills in the NewPage Corp. The high costs make it difficult to lure capital investments from the company, Lyons said.
Union members at the mill say the company is a “bad actor” and is trying to use its influence as a major employer to wipe away justified injury claims.
Ron Hemingway, head of Local 900, said during the meeting with Sighinolfi on March 11 that NewPage was trying to deny claims for injured workers to drive down its insurance premiums.
“If our company would just do the right thing and pay the claim, they wouldn’t be losing all those cases,” Hemingway said.
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage, said neither senior staff members nor LePage instructed Sighinolfi to establish the hearing officer rotation. She said the director told the staff that he had taken the action. Bennett said the administration had no objections.
Matt Schlobohm, a lobbyist for the Maine AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions, said the administration is once again picking companies over workers.
“It’s just another example of a company saying ‘jump’ and this administration saying, ‘How high?’ ” he said.
HEARING OFFICER QUIETLY REMOVED
The number of worker compensation claims for a specific company is confidential information under state law.
According to an annual report by the Maine Workers Compensation Board, there were 13,187 cases involving injuries that caused workers to lose one or more days of work in 2012, down by 349 cases from 2011.
The report doesn’t identify companies, but each county is assigned “a disabling rate” for such cases. Oxford County has the fourth-highest rate in the state, slightly above the state average. NewPage is the largest employer in Oxford County, according to 2012 Maine Department of Labor rankings.
It took nearly three years for labor advocates to discover that hearing officer Goodnough had effectively been removed from NewPage cases. Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the assistant majority leader, said Monday that Sighinolfi could have informed the compensation board of his decision and still had the votes to ratify it. The executive director is the tie-breaker vote on the board, which is evenly divided between management and labor interests.
“If this wasn’t supposed to be a secret, then why didn’t he just tell the board?” Jackson said.
Patrick said he hopes Sighinolfi will appear before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee within the next seven to 10 days.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:email@example.comTwitter: @stevemistler