The new law exempts laid-off employees from work-search requirements in Maine’s unemployment insurance law for up to six weeks, provided that their employers set a specific date for them to return to their jobs after no more than 12 weeks. The law particularly affects workers in Maine’s logging and construction industries.

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage is urging employers to push for the repeal of a new law that relaxes work-search requirements for Mainers who experience short-term job layoffs.

The new law exempts laid-off employees from work-search requirements in Maine’s unemployment insurance law for up to six weeks, provided that their employers set a specific date for them to return to their jobs after no more than 12 weeks.

LePage vetoed the bill in July but it was overridden on a bipartisan vote by the Legislature.

This week, LePage sent a letter to employers calling on them to pressure lawmakers into repealing the new law.

“You and I know that unemployment is insurance, not an entitlement,” LePage wrote. “It is a safety net – not a means of subsidizing one industry’s or one employer’s payroll on the backs of all other employers.”

He also provided copies of the legislative roll call votes so employers could contact lawmakers to complain.

Peter Steele, the governor’s director of communications, said Thursday the letter was sent to 45,000 employers. Both businesses and nonprofit organizations received the letter based on addresses on file with the state’s Department of Labor.

The law change comes as the state is experiencing record low unemployment and a workforce shortage that has many companies understaffed. Since 2010, Maine’s population has grown only slightly, and the state has the highest median age – 44 – in the country, with more and more workers retiring.

The key sponsor of the new law, Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, said the measure is meant to help employers such as construction and logging companies, who regularly use temporary layoffs to get through seasonal shifts in the weather.

“We have a mud season in Maine when roads are often posted, three weeks, four weeks, and they can’t get their large equipment in and out to do jobs,” said Volk, who is the Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Volk said logging and construction workers frequently go through the motions of the work search knowing they will be returning to work with the employer they recently left.

“It is just an exercise they had to go through, they are not switching employers, these are truly temporary layoffs and they are going back to the exact same employer you were working for the month before,” she said.

Before the new law was passed, employees had to apply for a waiver in order to forgo the work search requirement, which Volk described as time-consuming for employers, employees and the state Department of Labor. She said the law also has an automatic review built into it so the Legislature will be able to revisit it in 2021 if the job market or the economy changes dramatically. She said the measure could be changed or repealed then if necessary.

“If we were not at such very low unemployment levels we obviously would have considered this bill in a very different light,” Volk said.

Volk, who has sided with LePage on other legislation, said she’s disappointed in the letter, but doesn’t see it as improper. LePage contends in his letter that the new law will increase costs for all businesses, and that it turns unemployment compensation into an entitlement.

“Employers who have the highest use of unemployment in their slow season are already socializing their costs across the system,” LePage wrote. “This law does nothing to change that process; it incentivizes it.”

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce testified against the bill at a legislative hearing. Peter Gore, a lobbyist for the chamber, told lawmakers the chamber recognizes the concerns and frustrations of employers such as the logging and construction industries.

“However, the issue of seasonal employee exemptions in a variety of business sectors has been discussed and debated in the past and our position remains the same – we are opposed to the socialization of (unemployment insurance ) costs across our system,” Gore said in testimony to the labor committee in March 2017.

The governor also said he was concerned that some workers may use the exemption and not do a work search after a temporary layoff and will not be called back to work.

LePage also takes issue with a change that limits the work search to within 35 miles of a worker’s residence. “As a rural state, most of us have a commute, and many of us have a commute farther than 35 miles,” he wrote.

Despite the opposition, the Legislature unanimously approved the law change and in July overrode LePage’s veto of the bill with broad bipartisan support, including override votes of 32-1 in the state Senate and 140-3 in the House of Representatives.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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