Even though a Maine Department of Labor official said it would, the department has yet to respond to allegations in an internal memo that high-ranking officials rushed a faulty unemployment filing system out, ordered records of system failures destroyed and left thousands of Mainers without benefits in the dead of winter.

Laura Hudson, a department spokesperson, said on Tuesday morning that the labor department was “working on a response,” but it did not issue one. State government offices closed at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday because of the nor’easter.

By Wednesday, the department still had not responded to questions from the Morning Sentinel, specifically about whether officials acknowledge the existence of the memo and whether John Feeney, the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation directly implicated in the document, would appear before a state legislative committee to answer questions raised by the memo.

In recent weeks the department has not responded to multiple interview requests. Additionally, it has yet to comply with multiple Freedom of Access Act requests for records and other information, though it did acknowledge receipt of the requests sent by the Sentinel.

The Sentinel first reported on the existence of the confidential document on Sunday. The document does not have an author listed or a description of whom it was intended for, but its claims have been substantiated by two former labor department employees who spoke anonymously and separately to the Sentinel.

According to the document leaked from the department, the new unemployment filing system, known as ReEmployME, was rushed out despite the concerns of employees within the department. The document alleges that records were destroyed and phone lines were shut down so claimants couldn’t leave messages.

“Someone needs to account for the failure,” the memo writer says toward the end. “Thousands of dollars in temporary staffing and overtime are accruing because of poor planning and decisions that look a lot like coverups.”

Since the contents of the memo have been made public, members of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development have called for action. Three members, all Democrats, have called for the department to take responsibility for the system’s failures and come before the committee to answer questions and respond to concerns. They have indicated an investigation could follow, and two members, co-chairman Rep. Ryan Fecteau and Sen. Shenna Bellows, said that if all the allegations prove to be true, those responsible for the cover-up should lose their jobs.

No Republican committee members have responded to messages seeking comment since the first report of the memo’s existence.

Since the Morning Sentinel first reported the story, other media outlets have obtained the confidential document and reported on it. In a tweet Monday, TV station WGME quoted Labor Commissioner John Butera as saying the department had investigated the claims and said they were not true, and that all calls were logged and saved. However, no official statement addressing the claims in the document has been released.

The state attorney general’s office did not return a call on whether the office is considering investigating the department.

The filing system, known as ReEmployME, is a cloud-based system. Maine is a member of a consortium, along with Mississippi, Rhode Island and Connecticut, called ReEmployUSA, a $90 million project funded by the federal government and spearheaded by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

Maine’s system, built on Mississippi’s system, was rolled out in early December and encountered immediate problems. High-ranking department officials have maintained that problems associated with ReEmployME are the fault of the people trying to make a claim. However, many Mainers affected by the system — who are locked out of their accounts and are unable to reach anyone in the department for help — refute that notion.

Josh Bradeen, 21, of Searsmont, said he has been harmed by ReEmployME. He was working a seasonal construction job that ended about midway through November. When he filed his unemployment claims in December, he was not given good guidance on the claim period. Thinking his claims were going through, he discovered at the end of January when he went to a career center in Bangor for help that all the claims he made were for an incorrect claim period.

“All the claims I made for November and December and midway through January didn’t count because they weren’t able to put them on the current claim,” he said.

Bradeen has a part-time job and hasn’t tried to file again, since he thought he would be working more than 20 hours a week, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. He has another part-time job plowing snow, but that depends on the weather. To complicate matters, he said, the new system’s work search filing portion is a burden. He saids he should be able to file for partial unemployment, but the system won’t let him.

“This didn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “They made it even more confusing.”

There is also mounting concern about the department pushing forward with another rollout, this one for employers to pay into the system. Employers are largely unaware that a new system is being put in place, Fecteau said, and department staffing consolidations and movement of field representatives will 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 earlier this week. “It’s gearing up for déjà vu.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

 

filed under: