Late Friday afternoon the Maine Department of Labor announced it was making changes to its controversial unemployment insurance filing system and would now allow claimants to file their work search histories by phone.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who co-chairs the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, has been one of the loudest critics of the department and ReEmployME. Fecteau said the department had not contacted him or other committee members before making the announcement, and he was surprised to see the department had created “a whole new number” separate from the toll-free number that was open longer hours.

The department came under fire after the rollout of ReEmployME in December left countless Mainers unable to get their unemployment benefits. An anonymous internal memo that came into the possession of the Morning Sentinel alleged that high-ranking officials within the department, specifically John Feeney, the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, ordered that records of complaints about the system be destroyed illegally.

The department denied the allegations in the document.

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 claims filing system. OPEGA probably will begin that investigation in late May or June after issuing its report on the state’s handling of fatal child abuse cases.

The announcement on Friday comes just over a week after the Legislature tabled a vote on an unemployment bill that included amendments that required the department to allow claimants alternative filing methods for their work searches. The bill, L.D. 1770, addresses how employers pay into the system and requires the state labor department to address concerns about filing claims using the ReEmployMe system.

The amendment to L.D. 1770 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 voicemail portion later was dropped.

The news release stated that department representatives on a work search and technical support line can assist claimants in creating an account for the system, known as ReEmployME, help reset passwords and take work search information.

“Representatives at the Work Search and Technical Support line are available from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 207-623-6765. Claimants must have already filed their Weekly Certification on the automated phone filing system at 1-800-593-7660 before support-line representatives can take their Work Search information,” the statement reads.

Technical support workers cannot answer claims or benefits questions, which are referred to a representative in the claim center through the department’s toll-free number Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.

The release states claimants have multiple ways to file weekly certification, stating that online remains the fastest method. Those without internet access or who can’t get through by phone should go to career centers.

Fecteau said he had no idea what the motivations were, but perhaps the department was trying to comply with federal law, which requires alternative filing methods for the work search.

“I’m curious what promoted it,” he said.

He also said it seems “very abnormal” the department would change what they were doing, since officials have maintained they did not want to create a phone line. However, he said it was “tremendous” that phone lines were open.

“I’m pleased the department is moving in this direction to comply with federal law and ensure folks who don’t have” access to computers can file for their benefits another way. “This is huge. It will be very important for folks out there.”

The department did not respond to questions Friday about what prompted the decision to allow an alternative filing method and why the announcement came late on Friday. It’s not clear whether the changes represent a concession that the system is not working properly or that measures legislators have been asking for are necessary.

The department has not responded to multiple requests for an interview with John Feeney, nor has it fulfilled multiple Freedom of Access Act requests seeking information concerning the managers and the management of the system, other than to acknowledge receipt of the requests sent by the Morning Sentinel. It routinely has said all media requests must be sent in writing, so answers may be sent to all members of the news media.

Department management has maintained there are alternative methods for filing, that claimants are at fault for not knowing how to use the system and that such problems are to be expected during a rollout of a new system.

Fecteau said the Legislature has not yet been called back, so they have been unable to discuss L.D. 1770 again.

Fecteau, Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, and Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, have reported recently they still are hearing from constituents about problems with the unemployment claims filing system.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis