Andrew O’Brien spent several months this year looking for a job before he landed a data entry position through a temp agency. His experience, he said, taught him how demoralizing it can be looking for a job right now.

That’s why he got so angry last week when Gov. Paul LePage said he’s hearing from businesses that their biggest competition for workers is the state’s unemployment insurance program.

“We have got to convince those who can work that we need to get them back to work,” LePage said at a forum in Bangor, according to the Bangor Daily News. “Quite frankly, I think that might be a sign that we’re paying them a bit too much when they’re at home not working.”

O’Brien, a 32-year-old Democrat from Lincolnville, represents several rural towns in Midcoast Maine in the House of Representatives. He’s normally a low-profile lawmaker, but he was so enraged by LePage’s comments that he has spent the past week trying to meet with him. But he couldn’t get a meeting with the governor or any of his staff, he said.

On Wednesday, frustrated with the lack of response, O’Brien sent an open letter inviting LePage to spend time at career centers to learn more about the experiences of the unemployed. He said LePage should listen to job seekers, and not just the “job creators” that he so often talks about.

After releasing the letter, O’Brien finally got his meeting: A phone call from a member of the governor’s economic development team.

O’Brien noted in his letter that 60 percent of the 52,000 Mainers who were unemployed in September did not qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. Moreover, the average unemployment benefit is $6.97 an hour, which is lower than minimum wage.

“I don’t know anyone preferring to collect what amounts to a pittance over a hard-earned paycheck,” wrote O’Brien, who holds a master’s degree in education, but has been mostly doing seasonal work such as raking blueberries while serving as a legislator.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, the average benefit is $271 a week and the maximum benefit is $366. Maine’s benefit is the lowest in New England, and in the bottom third of states nationally. In 2010, 34 states had a higher weekly benefit rate than Maine.

The average person in Maine receiving unemployment benefits received 16.1 weeks of benefits this year, up from the average 14.3 weeks in 2007.

At the same Bangor forum, LePage was quoted as saying he wanted to see if there are enough incentives to get people off unemployment and back to work, as well as whether the money paid to unemployed people should be reduced.

LePage spokesperson Adrienne Bennett said on Wednesday that the administration does not plan to submit legislation to lower the unemployment insurance benefit.

“The governor realizes that in this terrible economy there are people that want to work and he is sympathetic to the struggles that many Mainers are facing,” she said. “We are, however, fooling ourselves if we don’t think there are some people taking advantage of the system who would rather collect unemployment than get a job.”

Maine’s unemployment benefits program is not a big topic of discussion among Republican lawmakers, said Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the assistant House majority leader.

He said, however, that he has heard from some businesses complaining that some people are applying for jobs simply to meet unemployment insurance program requirements that they look for work.

He said LePage wants to create a culture in which people are encouraged to get off public assistance whenever possible.

But lawmakers need to be cautious when discussing programs that affect a vulnerable segment of the population and avoid making sweeping statements, Cushing said.

“We need to tread carefully in the legislative process and not send a hostile message to them,” he said.

If Republicans do try to lower unemployment benefits, they would face a “heck of a fight” from Democrats, said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.

He said he was “appalled by the governor’s comments because he seemed to be blaming the unemployed for their plight.

“To me, it’s inconceivable to think that someone is going to just stay home,” he said. “Mainers want to work. I don’t see an overabundance of jobs, and I don’t see that the governor has gotten jobs in his tenure so far.”

Tom Bell — 791-6369

[email protected]

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