WASHINGTON -- Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) recently bullied state workers to resolve unemployment claim disputes in favor of businesses, according to an investigation by the Maine Sun Journal published on Thursday.
According to the paper's report, LePage called a mandatory meeting on March 21 with more than a dozen state Department of Labor employees. He allegedly scolded the hearing officers and their supervisors, complaining that they too often decided against businesses that challenge laid-off workers' unemployment claims.
Matt Schlobohm, director of the Maine chapter of the AFL-CIO labor union, sharply criticized LePage for interfering with unemployment claims on Thursday.
"This is a gross violation of due process," Schlobohm said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "These hearing officers are impartial judges that by law are required to make fair, impartial decisions, and for the governor to actively intimidate them and try to sway their rulings in favor of employers is a very serious offense and a very serious wrongdoing for the people of Maine."
LePage's office declined to respond to the Sun Journal. A spokeswoman for the governor referred The Huffington Post to Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz, who defended LePage's actions.
"I understand that this inquiry can be troubling to some hearing officers," Rabinowitz said. "But it's not intimidation, it's a review of the cases. It's looking at legal standards, it's looking at decisions, it's looking at what evidence was allowed in -- was it just an oversight, or was it really a deliberate exclusion that should not have occurred? It's a management issue, not a legal interference issue."
Sources who spoke with the Sun Journal and attended the meeting said they felt "abused, harassed and bullied" by LePage. The sources said they felt they would lose their jobs if they didn't "skew the outcomes of their appeals cases in favor of employers" rather than decide cases on their merits.
When a worker is laid off, he or she can apply for jobless benefits from the state. The former employer then has the opportunity to appeal that claim, and businesses have an incentive to do so since the more workers from a single company who qualify for unemployment benefits, the more the business has to pay in unemployment taxes. Lawmakers in other states recently have sought to make the process more friendly to businesses.
In Maine, the first level of appeal is with the state Department of Labor's Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, filled with administrative officers who are bound to follow federal guidelines. The next level of appeal is the Unemployment Insurance Commission, which is made up of three appointees of the governor. The third step is the Maine Superior Court.
Commission chair Jennifer Duddy and Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette also attended the March 21 meeting. Rabinowitz said Duddy and Paquette were concerned that when deciding cases, the administrative hearing officers were not using the same guidelines or the same standard of law as the commission appointees.
"The governor wants everyone to do the best for the people, and so does Commissioner Paquette," said Rabinowitz. "It's unfortunate that they feel they're under pressure, but I don't think the pressure is about deciding cases in favor of businesses. The pressure is to make sure that we're following due process and we're coordinating."
LePage has had a history of run-ins with the labor community. Most memorably, he came under fierce criticism for quietly ordering the removal of a mural of Maine's labor history from the state Department of Labor, saying it was biased against the business community.
Rabinowitz said she has always found the governor to be "a personable guy" and did not personally hear any complaints from staff saying LePage bullied or belittled them.