Members of a state legislative committee are calling for high-ranking officials in the Maine Department of Labor to take responsibility for rushing out a faulty unemployment filing system and allegedly destroying records of claimants who were not able to access their benefits for weeks.

According to a confidential memo that was leaked from the department, the new unemployment filing system, known as ReEmployME, was rushed out despite concerns from those within the department. The document also alleges what appears to be a cover-up, with records getting destroyed and phone lines shut down so claimants can’t leave messages.

The Morning Sentinel first reported on the memo Sunday, in a story that also confirmed separately many of the memo’s claims by two former temporary department employees with firsthand knowledge of the new program.

Three members of the joint committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, including the co-chair, called for the department to take responsibility for the system’s failures, and said an investigation into the department’s actions may be required. The remaining 10 members of the committee did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday.

State Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she wants Labor Commissioner John Butera and John Feeney, the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation — the person the memo singles out as having direct responsibility for the system’s failures — to come before the committee to answer questions about the contents of the memo.

“I want to hear from them about what they are doing to fix the online system,” Bellows said Monday, adding she wants to hear an explanation of “why on earth they allowed the complaints from claimants to be destroyed.”

Laura Hudson, information officer for the Maine Department of Labor, did not respond to a request Monday for comment from Feeney. She has not responded to emails from the Morning Sentinel over the last several weeks as well. Additionally, the Labor department has yet to comply with multiple Freedom of Access Act requests, though it did acknowledge receipt of the requests sent by the Morning Sentinel.

In a tweet Monday, TV station WGME quoted Butera as saying the department had investigated the claims and said they were not true, and that all calls were logged and saved.

Bellows called the destruction of documents a violation of right-to-know laws. She also said the Labor department is out of compliance with federal law by not allowing claimants to have an alternative method of filing their work search history. Under ReEmployME, claimants would have to file their work searches online, which has proven to be incredibly problematic for older Mainers or those living in rural areas without reliable access to the internet or a computer.

“The Department of Labor has an opportunity to make things right for Mainers,” Bellows said. “They have a choice. They can move forward to fix all the problems that have been documented and turn this around. Or not.”

Bellows has stated that if all the allegations of records destruction prove to be true that she thought high-ranking officials within the department should lose their jobs.

That sentiment was echoed Monday by state Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who co-chairs the committee. On Monday, Fecteau said ReEmployME was rolled out prematurely and against the better judgment of many within the department who didn’t want to rush the system out.

However, he said the department suppressed those opposition voices. He said someone or multiple people made the decision to ignore better judgment and unveil the new system, which has left countless Mainers without their benefits for weeks at a time. Fecteau said that was “gross negligence” on the part of the department.

“Those folks ought to be fired,” Fecteau said.

Fecteau said Feeney was responsible for the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, which administers the system, and said “it’s clearly not been done well.”

“What I’m hearing from employees indicates there’s been a suppression from the top (regarding) complaints,” Fecteau said. “I think it’s completely wrong and unhealthy. And it’s not the way government should be working.”

Fecteau said he thinks it’s also possible that impacted Mainers could bring forth lawsuits going forward, but wasn’t sure if anyone was actively considering that now.

“I think there are a few options available,” he said. “I think they have a strong case for a right of action. I think there’s a great deal of potential here for a lawsuit.”

Following publication of the memo’s contents, more people affected by the program’s problems began speaking of the system’s shortcomings on social media. One person on Twitter, responding to the Morning Sentinel story, said her son had never received an unemployment check. In an exchange with Bellows, the person called ReEmployME a “complete cluster.”

“He is working 16 hours a week till flagging starts up and gave up on the system,” she wrote.

Fecteau said that in a recently recommended bill by the committee, Feeney would have been required to come back before the legislators in April. However, he said he didn’t think that would occur.

He also said the committee could call on the Government Oversight Committee, which has subpoena power.

“This has run amok,” Fecteau said. “It’s hard to clear off the layers of mud here to find out what’s really occurred and who’s really been impacted.”

The idea of an investigation was also mentioned Monday by Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston. While he said he wants Feeney to come before the committee and answer questions and take responsibility for the system’s failures and the destruction of records, Handy said the committee could call for an investigation.

“The destruction of documents to me is an outrageous thing,” Handy said. “I have no reason to believe that is not true, and I think someone needs to be held accountable. If there were people who destroyed documents who are no longer in the department, then someone in the department needs to come before us, accept responsibility, and lay out exactly what they’re going to do to make the system work for those who it was intended for.”

However, Handy said it appears the department is “bucking the law” and that claimants have the right to get their benefits. “The department and others need to take some responsibility here.”

Handy said he thinks it’s fair to give the department an opportunity to come back before the committee and take ownership of this, but said even if that happens, if committee members are not satisfied with what they hear, “then we need to consider alternative means of getting answers and forcing accountability with the Department of Labor.”

Members of the committee have also expressed their concerns with the department moving forward with another rollout for a similar filing system on the employer side of things. Fecteau said from what he has heard, employers are largely unaware that a new system is being put in place. Fecteau has also heard there may be some staffing consolidations and movements for field representatives in the department, which would make the new system transition even more difficult.

“I cannot imagine launching a new system in August, having hundreds of businesses with questions, and not having enough staff to field those questions,” he said. “It’s gearing up for deja vu.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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