This legislative session MPA has been fighting a bill, LD 1725, presented to the Legislature by Governor LePage's Department of Labor, that would increase potential criminal penalties for unemployment fraud from a maximum of one year to 10 years in prison. This is an extreme proposal, especially for a state that has one of the nation's lowest unemployment fraud rates. In addition, the bill's increased work-search mandates will force unemployed workers to take a job well beneath their skill and wage level. The proposal would also reduce the time that a jobless worker has to look for work in their field from 12 weeks to just 6 weeks. There is even a provision that would reverse a law passed by the Legislature in 2010 that exempted earned time off (like vacation pay) from the period a laid-off worker must wait before receiving jobless assistance.
LD 1725 also targets women and low-wage workers who are more likely to face barriers accessing affordable child care and transportation. One provision will eliminate childcare and transportation emergencies from the definition of “good cause” for missing a mandatory appointment for “reemployment eligibility assessment services.” This would mean that a mother who is unable to secure child care on one occasion would no longer have good cause if she is unable to make her mandatory appointment as a result. Without good cause these individuals would be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.
At the public hearing, MPA Board member and unemployed worker Brenda Akers testified, as did Lead Organizer Gen Lysen and Political Engagement Director Ben Chin. They presented binders full of personal messages from over 700 MPA members demanding that the legislation be rejected and read stories from jobless workers to the committee members.
The bill unveiled last week is supported by Gov. Paul LePage, who touted it last year as a crackdown on fraud, even though Maine’s fraud rate is almost five times lower than the national average, at less than 1 percent.
At a time when Maine is only slowly recovering from a deep recession and when there are still nearly 5 workers competing for every job opening nationally, it would seem that the focus should be on job creation; not on restricting access to jobless assistance program penalizing unemployed workers.