Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced frustration last Thursday after Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman failed to participate in a committee meeting to discuss issues surrounding unemployment in Maine.
The meeting was intended as a follow-up to a heated four-hour briefing in early May. Lawmakers hoped to have new questions answered but were left with little information on how to help struggling constituents.
“It’s unconscionable for any administration to refuse to answer questions from constituents who have reached out to us, their representatives, for help,” Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester and co-chair of the labor panel, said. “This is unacceptable.”
Co-chair Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, called the administration’s decision “incredibly disrespectful.”
Bellows added that the move mirrors former Governor Paul LePage’s refusal to send his labor commissioner to committee meetings.
“It was wrong then and it is wrong now,” she said.
Republicans expressed similar dismay over Fortman’s absence; Rep. Josh Morris, R-Turner, called it “infuriating” while Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Penobscot, said it was an “outrageous failure of the Mills administration.” Other republican lawmakers went a step further, however, to call for Fortman’s resignation.
“Commissioner Fortman should strongly consider resigning in order to try and restore public confidence that the system can be fixed without further delay,” Rep. Dick Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, said. Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley, introduced a motion for Fortman to step down, though it was defeated in a 6-5 vote by the Labor and Housing Committee.
The Mills administration claims legislative leaders were told that Fortman was unlikely to attend the meeting. While Bellows said she knew of the administration’s plans––and tried to convince them otherwise––some lawmakers seemed to be left in the dark.
“We were completely surprised when the commissioner didn’t show up today,” Bradstreet said.
The administration’s decision comes as thousands of jobless Mainers struggle to navigate an overwhelmed unemployment system and access benefits. The unemployment rate increased from 3.0% in March to 10.6% in April, the highest in Maine’s recorded history. May’s employment data will be released on June 19th.
The issue of unemployment in Maine is compounded by thousands of fraudulent claims that must be parsed through. In the week ending May 30, the Department of Labor cancelled more than 12,000 initial claims and 17,000 certifications that were fraudulent.
“Given all of this, I directed Commissioner Fortman to remain engaged in her work today and to continue to push out benefits to Maine people who desperately need them – a goal lawmakers share,” Mills said. “The Department of Labor will continue to keep legislators apprised in writing of all significant developments.”
Mills also indicated that she was not pleased by how Fortman was treated at last month’s briefing, in which lawmakers fired questions at the labor commissioner.
“[She was] respectfully answering questions but not always having that respect returned in kind,” Mills said.
Gov. Mills’ decision increases existing tensions between her administration and lawmakers of both parties. Last month, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson called on Mills to create a reopening task force, a request which she later denied. Other Democrats’ have openly criticized her response to COVID-19, including her decision to delay dine-in services for restaurants in three Maine counties.