AUGUSTA — Employee rights advocates, business owners and state employees outlined on Thursday an unemployment compensation system that is complex and difficult to navigate for both employers and the unemployed.

About 10 people spoke during the first half of the six-hour public hearing held in front of a commission tasked with investigating the fairness and efficiency of the state’s unemployment claim system.

They told stories of employers and employees not knowing how the process works and of an overwhelming caseload squeezing strained staffers trying to resolve the claims in time to meet federal deadlines.

Gov. Paul LePage created the six-member commission in April amid allegations that he and his appointee to the state’s Unemployment Compensation Commission pressured unemployment hearing officers during a luncheon in March to make more pro-business rulings in appeals decisions that determine whether workers receive benefits.

At the time, LePage called those allegations “politically motivated” but said in a statement released in April that he created the commission because he wants to make sure the system is “fair and consistent for all Mainers.”

The commission is supposed to file its report with any recommendations by Dec. 1.

Former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Daniel Wathen, one of the commission’s co-chairmen, said initial findings reveal a system that’s complicated with a lack of consistency through its multiple levels of appeals.

“It is one of the most complex processes that exist in state government and that’s not a good thing,” Wathen said to one business owner who testified about the challenges she’s encountered in her 13 years dealing with unemployment claims.

The first step in the process is for the staff at the state’s unemployment offices to gather facts and weigh a claim against the circumstances of an employee’s departure.

Their decisions can be appealed to a hearing officer, who often conducts hearings with former employees and employers over the phone, Wathen said.

After that, a hearing officer’s decision can be appealed to the Unemployment Insurance Commission, a three-member board in the Maine Department of Labor. Either party can then appeal to Superior Court, and finally to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

“That’s an incredible number of stops,” Wathen said. He said it’s not necessarily a bad process, but it has proved to be ineffective.

Maura Bragg, a hearing officer for the department’s Division of Administrative Hearings, told the commission members she agrees that more consistency among the three divisions of the state’s process is needed and that there are too many levels of appeals.

Bragg said, however, that more staff is needed to handle the number of cases reaching the first appeal level. Each hearing officer must conduct 20 to 25 hearings per a week, she said, in order to meet the 30-day timeline established by the federal government.

“If there are any inequities in the hearing process, they stem from budget cuts,” Bragg said.

“It’s a grueling schedule for us, and we endure being yelled, cursed at and even have had to duck flying trash cans and fistfights.”

Bragg briefly touched on the lunch in March organized by LePage, saying the hearing officers now are required to hold records open if employers wants to submit warnings or company policies.

They didn’t hold it open before, she said, and doing so further delays the process.

“To me, of course, the fact that anything came out of that luncheon as a change of procedure is pretty tough to swallow,” Bragg said.

Jim Betts, who identified himself as a recently retired claims adjudicator for the department’s Bureau of Unemployment, said the amount of cases handled by the first level is also overwhelming.

“I have questions whether we’re getting it right originally, and that’s why appeals is seeing the number of cases they are,” Betts said.

Another problem identified by those who testified is a lack of knowledge about the process among both employers and former employees trying to file claims.

Betts said there are many times when claim adjudicators make decisions based on weak information because the two parties didn’t know what is admissible or needed.

Business owner Colleen Bailey, at the hearing with her husband Ed, criticized the process as unfair to employers at times and difficult to understand for both sides, describing challenges they’ve faced as owners of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in central Maine.

Bailey said the process is such a headache that she’s considered just paying any former employee who files an unemployment claim.

“It is complicated. It is hard to work with. I’m ready to give up and let everyone collect, but I don’t want to do that,” she said. “I want to be fair to everybody.”

Bailey said they’ve been a part of a lot of unemployment cases in their 13 years with the businesses because of the amount of turnover in the fast-food industry. Often, the cases stem from firings, she said.

At the appeals stage, Bailey said, the workplace rules she has set don’t matter and hearing officers don’t seem to understand what is required in a customer-service industry.

“I feel like I’m always the one that’s wrong, and I’m the employer. And the employee’s always right, even if they lie, even if they make things up,” Bailey said.

“I’m just not believable, and that’s really hard for me to understand, I guess; because I think what needs to be understood is we don’t want to fire people. I need people to work. I have job openings now.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]

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