AUGUSTA — After months of discussion over the botched rollout of the state’s new online unemployment filing system, the Legislature on Wednesday tabled L.D. 1770, a bill that addresses how employers pay into the system and requires 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 did not gain the necessary votes to pass as an emergency measure in the House of Representatives. Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, made a motion to reconsider, and the measure was tabled. Legislators will take it up again when they decide to return.

According to an internal “confidential” memo obtained by the Morning Sentinel that was 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 the down-on-their-luck people seeking benefits even as the department’s leader fostered a toxic atmosphere of neglect and 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 to the bill 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, put forth by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, required a number of things, including filling vacant positions in the Department of Labor, posting notice of the vacant positions, and creating a voicemail and call-back component for claimants.

The amendment also adopts the method of having past employers within a certain time period pay into the insurance fund on a proportional basis.

Fecteau said the amendment would allow claimants who were unable to get their benefits during the first phase of the filing system’s rollout to reapply with the department. 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 in the House of Representatives the bill that had been passed as an emergency measure in the Senate. However, this failed, as a two-thirds majority was needed to pass it. 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 claimants 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 computers, smart phones, or reliable internet access or who don’t have the means to get somewhere to access any of those things.

Department management has maintained there are alternative methods for filing, such as by phone or in person. However, whether by phone or in person, a person does have to file online. If a claimant is able to reach a person on the phone, that employee has to use the claimant’s login and information. 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 mangement of the system, though it did acknowledge receipt of the requests sent by the Morning Sentinel.

Bellows, Fecteau, Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, and Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, have reported they still are hearing from constituents about the problems, while the department shifts the blame onto claimants not knowing how to use computers. The department also maintains that such problems were to be expected during a rollout.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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