AUGUSTA — After months of discussion over the botched rollout of the state’s online unemployment filing system, the Legislature on Wednesday tabled L.D. 1770, a bill that would address how employers pay into the system and require the state labor department to address concerns about filing claims using the ReEmployMe system.

The Senate passed L.D. 1770 as an emergency measure, but it fell short of passage as an emergency measure in the House. Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, made a motion to reconsider, and the measure was tabled. Legislators will take it up again when they return.

According to an internal “confidential” memo obtained by the Morning Sentinel and written by a Department of Labor employee but never made public, state officials bungled the rollout of the filing system, rushing it out with little training or care for people seeking benefits even as the department’s leader ordered complaints to be destroyed.

The department denies the accusations.

The state’s Government Oversight Committee voted to authorize the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to launch an investigation into the labor department and the system. OPEGA probably will begin that investigation in May.

On Wednesday, the Maine Senate addressed an amendment that had gone before the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, chaired by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.

The amendment, introduced by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, required filling vacant positions in the Department of Labor, posting notice of the vacant positions, and creating a voicemail and call-back component for claimants.

Fecteau said the amendment would allow claimants who were unable to get their benefits during the first phase of the rollout to reapply. However, the provision doesn’t guarantee they would be approved.

Volk introduced an amendment to strike the voicemail requirement, which was adopted. During recent legislative committee meetings, a representative from the Maine Department of Labor indicated creating a voicemail component would have been prohibitively expensive. The department also pushed back against other requirements in the amendment, but they ultimately passed in both the House and Senate.

To move the bill beyond party lines, Fecteau moved to adopt the House bill that had been passed as an emergency measure in the Senate. However, this failed to get the needed two-thirds majority. Fecteau moved to have it tabled. Legislators will take up the effort again when they are called back, but at this point, it is not clear when that might happen.

ReEmployME has created controversy since it was rolled out last December. After the first week, unemployed Mainers trying to file claims reported problems, from getting locked out of their accounts and being unable to reach anyone at the department to going weeks and months without receiving their benefits.

The requirement in Bellows’ amendment to L.D. 1770 to provide alternative filing methods stemmed from disagreements over how claimants could file their work search histories. Many have said these searches can be filed only online, which has been criticized as unfair to older Mainers or those living in rural parts of the state without access to reliable internet.

Department management has maintained there are alternative methods for filing, such as by phone or in person. However, if claimants want to file in person, they have to go to a career center and get help there.

The department has not responded to multiple requests for an interview with John Feeney, director of the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, nor has it complied with multiple Freedom of Access Act requests seeking information concerning the managers and the management of the system..

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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