The director of the state’s watchdog organization hopes to begin its investigation into the Maine Department of Labor soon as the department continues moving forward with its rollout of the second phase of the controversial unemployment insurance filing system ReEmployME.

Beth Ashcroft, the director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said she hopes to have a clearer picture of where the investigation into the labor department will go after the next meeting of the Government Oversight Committee on Thursday.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers remain critical of the department’s plan to push out the system’s next phase, which is planned for August, saying they believe the timeline is rushed. This second phase is aimed at employers, while the first phase — which lawmakers panned for being rushed and ill-conceived — was aimed at unemployed workers trying to claim benefits.

ReEmployME was rolled out last December, with the first phase geared toward claimants trying to file for their benefits. However, the system instantly presented problems, locking countless claimants out of the system and leaving them unable to file for their benefits for weeks and months at times.

The labor department maintained the new system was working as it should, but whistleblower information and leaked documents marked “confidential” that were obtained by the Morning Sentinel told a different story. Those accounts stated ReEmployME was rushed out despite serious concerns from people within the department, 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 and have denied any wrongdoing. In multiple legislative hearings, lawmakers expressed their skepticism over these claims of innocence.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said that even though the number of people they are hearing from who are unable to access benefits has declined, the investigation into the labor department is still a necessity. Fecteau — who co-chairs the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development — requested the formal investigation, which ultimately was approved.

“I think some of the overarching concerns people had at the outset remain,” Fecteau said.

Despite significant concerns from lawmakers expressed during a number of legislative meetings, the department is continuing forward with its rollout. The department’s announcement states the main implementation of the new employer-targeted system is expected in early November.

Fecteau said he has not heard from any business owners who are concerned about the next phase, but he said many do not know it is coming and are too focused on hiring seasonal workers and running their businesses right now.

“As soon as the system gets rolled out, we’ll hear whether or not it’s working,” he said.

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 work needs to be done to improve child protective services.

Ashcroft said the oversight committee should give OPEGA a better sense of priority concerning the review of the labor unemployment program.

“I am not sure how far along that discussion will get or whether we will get as far as the priority discussion, but it is my intention to come away from that meeting with enough information for OPEGA to do its workload planning,” Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft previously had said she hoped to begin the investigation before the end of June, but the exact timeline depended on what the oversight committee requested regarding child protective services.

Fecteau said it’s possible affected workers just haven’t been contacting their legislators as they did throughout the winter. The allegations that the department destroyed records of worker complaints is still troubling and needs to be investigated by OPEGA, he said.

“The reality is the destruction of complaints is a serious violation of the public trust,” Fecteau said. “And if those allegations prove to be true, folks need to be held accountable.”

Fecteau said he hopes the second phase of ReEmployME will roll out better than the first.

“I remain optimistic,” he said. “I hope there are lessons learned from this past winter that would make sure the department would not roll out a system that is flawed.”

The labor department’s announcement about launching the employer system 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 always could 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 made that announcement after legislators tabled 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.

Fecteau said L.D. 1770 couldn’t get a two-thirds majority to pass in an emergency, but did pass in the House and Senate and is now on Gov. Paul LePage’s desk, awaiting a signature, a veto or inaction.

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.

Fecteau said the Legislature also passed legislation that essentially allows seasonal workers who are laid off but will return to the same job in a matter of weeks to forgo filling out a work search history. He said the bill provides relief to people who don’t need to use the “cumbersome” system since they are returning to the same job.

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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