A lawmaker who has been critical of the Maine Department of Labor and its unemployment claims system continues to express concerns as the department plans to roll out the next phase of the controversial system following a botched rollout of the first phase in Decmeber.

The department recently announced it will begin implementing the next phase of the system, which is directed toward employers, and will begin rolling it out in August. Multiple lawmakers expressed doubts over this timeline, especially when the first phase of the rollout was rushed.

The department also is facing an investigation into its management of the system by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who has been one of the loudest voices calling for the department to address faults in the system, which left countless Mainers unable to access their benefits throughout the winter and spring, said she already has heard from one small business in Monmouth that was “very angry” about the new rollout for employers.

Bellows said the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development had expressed concerns over the second phase of the rollout, with members saying a summer rollout was too fast, given the problems and fallout from the first phase. While she hasn’t heard from unemployed workers in over a month, unlike what happened during the winter, Bellows said that probably could be a result of high seasonal employment during the summer months.

ReEmployME was rolled out last December, with the first phase geared toward claimants trying to access their benefits. However, the system instantly presented problems, locking countless claimants out of the system and leaving them unable to access their benefits. The labor department maintained the new system was working as it should, although whistleblower information and leaked documents marked “confidential” told a different story, according to which ReEmployME was rushed out despite serious concerns, and that high-ranking officials within the department and specifically within the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation illegally ordered that records of claimant complaints be destroyed.

The department has maintained these accusations, corroborated by multiple sources, are false.

“I would hope some of the challenges have been fixed, but I do not believe the whole system has been rectified to help all the people,” Bellows said.

Bellows, who also obtained a copy of the internal confidential memo separately from the newspaper, said she believes there is still an atmosphere of fear of retaliation among department employees who do not want to suffer consequences by coming forward to address “systemic and departmental issues.”

“I think a lot of employees are waiting for a change in leadership and are hoping that a new administration will fix some of what they see as the problems,” Bellows said.

Despite significant concerns from lawmakers expressed during a number of legislative meetings, the department is continuing forward with its rollout timeline. The department’s announcement states the main implementation of the new employer-targeted system is expected in early November. It goes on to state that since the 1990s, Maine Revenue Services has performed some of the unemployment insurance tax business functions for Labor and the unemployment bureau. The new system is supposed to allow DOL BUC to assume most of those business functions and provide an improved and modernized employer experience online.

“One of our primary goals for ReEmployME Phase 2 is to provide Maine businesses with relevant information that may affect their business with DOL BUC. In the weeks to come, both MRS and MDOL will be providing links to FAQs and an online repository of communication statements,” the department’s announcement reads in part.

Earlier this year, Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, requested a formal investigation into the Labor department by the state’s Government Oversight Committee. The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability voted to investigate the Labor department.

Beth Ashcroft, the director of OPEGA, said she is hoping the group will be able to have a conversation at the next Government Oversight Committee meeting Thursday to see when the review of the labor department and its problems can start, but she didn’t have a specific date in mind.

“I am hoping here to get a start before the end of the month,” Ashcroft said.

The meeting starts at 9 a.m. in Room 220 of the Burton M. Cross State Office Building in Augusta.

OPEGA recently released a report saying the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees child and family services, did a poor job protecting two young children who were killed in child abuse cases. The agency doesn’t yet know how much child protective systems work needs to be done right away.

The labor department’s announcement comes just over a month after it shifted gears and allowed claimants to file their work search histories by phone. While department officials have maintained claimants could always file through multiple platforms, many people trying to file claims said that was false and that they could file their work search histories only online. In a late April news release, the department stated that 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, it said.

The department said that department representatives on a work search and technical support line can assist claimants in creating an account for the system, 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.

Department management has also maintained 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.

The department made that announcement after legislators had to table a vote on an unemployment bill, L.D. 1770, that included amendments that required the department to allow claimants alternative filing methods for their work searches. The bill addressed 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 department has not responded to multiple requests for an interview with John Feeney, director of the BUC, nor has it fulfilled multiple Freedom of Access Act requests seeking information concerning 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 news media requests must be sent in writing, so answers may be sent to all members of the news media.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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