AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Labor union representatives, advocates and state workers told a special commission Thursday that Maine's unemployment compensation system desperately needs more resources and staff and may require other changes to make it more efficient and fair.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage established the group last spring to examine the system of paying benefits to jobless workers amid criticism that he pressured unemployment hearing officers to decide more cases to favor business. The officers listen to jobless residents who appeal decisions regarding their unemployment benefits.
Former and current labor department employees defended the office's handling of unemployment cases, saying that their decisions are fair and unbiased. But several people expressed concerns about the lack of funding or officers available to process claims, resulting in delays in people receiving benefits and potentially mishandled cases.
"Claimants aren't getting their decisions done in a timely fashion, and we're rushed," Jim Betts, a former claims adjudicator for the state, told the commission. "Quite honestly we do the best we can with the information, but follow up questions, maybe a follow up phone call, those sort of things fall to the wayside."
The unemployment compensation system came under fire after a luncheon the governor held at the Blaine House in March with hearing officers. He reportedly said they overlooked information that skewed the outcome of cases, often in favor of workers. The administration has said that no one was pressured and that hearing officers were told to follow the law.
But Tim Belcher, general counsel for the Maine State Employees Association, said it was "clear to us in this case that there was an effort to interfere with their work."
Don Fontaine, a lawyer representing the Maine Education Association, said employees are at a significant disadvantage because they can rarely afford an attorney to represent them at the complicated hearings. He said the state should have staff on hand to help people with their cases in the event that they don't have a lawyer.
Several employers countered that the system already unfairly favors the employee. Colleen Bailey, who owns several Dunkin Donuts locations in Maine, said the system is so complicated and time consuming for employers that she often would rather skip the hearings and just pay the employee.
"I feel like I'm always the one that's wrong ... and the employee is always right, even if they lie, even if they make things up."
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