AUGUSTA — State legislators had their chance to finally speak to Labor department officials Wednesday, with many on the committee heavily criticizing the state’s new unemployment filing system.

At a hearing to revise laws regarding the unemployment system — a discussion that legislators ultimately tabled — members of the state’s Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development expressed concerns about the complaints that many constituents from across the state had forwarded to them.

State Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, was particularly outspoken in his criticism of the system with John Feeney, the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, and Dale Smith, the executive director for the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

Mississippi spearheaded what eventually became the four-state consortium known as ReEmployUSA, a cloud-based filing system that Maine is a part of, along with Rhode Island and Connecticut.

“The damage is done to a lot of folks that haven’t been paid,” said Fecteau, who co-chairs the committee with Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.

Maine unveiled its new unemployment filing system in early December, and it’s hardly been a smooth transition. The House Democratic Office has reported dozens of complaints since the roll-out occurred, and Fecteau asked Feeney and Smith multiple times if the Maine Department of Labor had rushed too fast to implement the new system.

“I’m concerned with whether the department made the right decision,” Fecteau said.

Smith said that when Mississippi first implemented its system, known as AccessMS, problems persisted for about six months, but also said virtually all states that have tried to modernize their unemployment filing systems have faced challenges. He said Mississippi went through three different stages deploying its system beginning in 2015 and culminating with its last rollout this past August.

“This is not a broken system,” he said, adding it was just an issue of a few “odds and ends” getting cleaned up.

Throughout the course of the hearing, representatives and senators pushed Feeney and Smith for the differences in how each state handled their respective rollouts. Fecteau specifically asked about the number of employees each state had answering the phones for claimants facing problems. Smith said the number varied depending on the circumstance, but in Mississippi ranged from three to 20-plus people during the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feeney said 14 staff were dedicated to answering the phones, but only from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

To Fecteau’s questions on whether December was the appropriate time to unveil the new system, considering the traditionally high number of claims at that time of year, Feeney said they had been targeting October, but that had to be pushed back. He said it had to happen before the end of the fiscal quarter, and couldn’t be pushed until after 2018 had started because it would push future timelines and because of financial constraints.

A persistent complaint in Maine has been the inability of claimants to actually reach someone by phone. State representatives have reported many cases of constituents trying unsuccessfully to file online — often getting locked out of their accounts or told their password was incorrect — and then trying to call the department’s helpline multiple times throughout the day. People have said they have been put on hold for hours or that they have just been disconnected.

“I am deeply concerned that as it exists now it is a broken system,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester.

Bellows said she was apprehensive about how the new system would perform going forward, especially in March when more seasonal workers such as loggers would be out of work once roads were posted.

“I’m really worried that we’re not out of the woods at all,” she said.

Another concern that came up was that claimants can only fill out claims on Sundays. Feeney said that when filling out work search forms, which are needed to be granted unemployment benefits, a person can’t file a claim until the end of the week. A claim needs to have the information from the week prior in order to be completed, he said, so it can’t be opened until the week has concluded.

“Once you open that claim, then you can put that information in for the week,” Feeney said.

The committee had been slated to discuss revisions to the unemployment law, essentially housekeeping updates to the language in the law, but the members tabled it after Fecteau introduced an amendment that would have allowed claimants to file completely over the phone or in writing. While most of the steps for filing can be done over the phone, the only way to provide a work search history is by logging on to an account on a computer, which is the source of many complaints. Members of the panel expressed concerns for older Maine residents or those living in rural areas who don’t have access to a computer or a reliable internet connection.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis