Lawmaker calls for Maine Labor Commissioner’s resignation after she fails to appear for oversight hearing

State Rep. Dustin White (R- Washburn)

AUGUSTA – Following is a letter being circulated by Rep. Dustin White calling for the resignation of Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman after her failure to appear before the Maine Legislature’s Labor Committee. The no-show from Commissioner Fortman came as failures in the Maine Department of Labor’s unemployment system continued after months of failure. Tens of thousands of Maine workers still await their unemployment benefits after weeks, and in some cases, months of delays.

News reports indicated that Governor Janet Mills had prior knowledge that Fortman would not appear before the committee and that in fact, Mills had instructed Fortman not to appear.

A statement accompanying the letter said Rep. White is circulating the letter to his colleagues in the legislature to ask lawmakers of both parties to sign on. White is urging members of the public to contact their elected officials to weigh in.

Dear Commissioner Fortman:

The past few months have been challenging for our state. COVID-19 has proven to be an insurmountable task for the Mills Administration, and shown incredible vulnerabilities within our bureaucracy. No more visible and tangible example of these vulnerabilities exists than what has gone on within the Department of Labor.  

Due to the Governor’s multiple executive orders, arbitrary and seemingly random rule application, and the politicization of this pandemic, the Administration has put our people in the untenable position of having to decide whether to commit a crime by opening their business, or keep their business closed and risk financial ruin. This government action is simply unheard of in Maine’s 200 year history.

To add to this ever-changing set of problems, many of Maine’s people are seeking to access unemployment benefits for the first time in their lives. In your position as Commissioner, you are well aware that many Mainers are self-employed. These entrepreneurs are feeling vulnerable and confused by a government bureaucracy that holds the fate of their entire family’s income in an unchecked voicemail box.

Government safety nets such as unemployment are certainly part of the state’s efforts to take care of some of our most vulnerable. We can think of none more vulnerable than those people forced out of work and left without an income by state mandates built on selective science. 

As duly-elected members of the legislature, you can understand our shock when we, together with the rest of the State of Maine, learned that prisoners have collected an untold amount in unemployment benefits since the beginning of this crisis, while thousands of law-abiding citizens are unable to even get through to your office. Some have waited for months to receive an unemployment check, with no response as of today.

 As members of the Legislature we would have appreciated the opportunity to ask how a complete dereliction of duty could have possibly happened. However, the Administration has elected to keep the legislative branch in the dark, and the elected voices of Maine’s people have been unable to gather in Augusta to ask these critical questions.

Another insult to Mainers came last week when your department announced that it had to suspend granting benefits because of thousands of fraudulent benefits claims, and that the Department was reverting to a 10-14 day window for processing a claim. Members of the legislature warned that suspending fact finding in the name of efficiency was not the way to processes claims faster. Now the claims are slowed again because of this lack of foresight.  While we certainly agree that these claims must now be investigated, the fact that the system and state has proven to be so easily defrauded shows an incredible lack of leadership, attention, and security at your department.  

Finally, this saga has culminated in the ultimate failure of your leadership at the department when you refused to even attend the legislative hearing of the Labor and Housing Committee on June 4th.  This complete abdication of your duties has made it clear that a change in direction is needed at Maine’s Department of Labor. Mainers are depending on the Department to perform its key functions, and top among these is ensuring the system they have paid into throughout their working lives is there to provide a financial safety net during a crisis. It is now clear to us that this mission cannot be met with you at the helm.  

As members of the legislature, we are elected by our constituents to be their voice in Augusta. It is not only our job to vote for their interests, but also to speak for them when they cannot speak for themselves. Attempts to speak with you and your Department have gone unanswered, and simple requests on behalf of those we represent have been met oftentimes with hostility from the Governor and your office.  Enough is enough, and it’s time for accountability to be restored in Augusta and at the Department of Labor. 

We are requesting that you tender your resignation as Commissioner of Labor without delay. It is clear that new leadership is desperately needed to ensure that Mainers will no longer be harmed by your failure of duty as Commissioner.

Sincerely,

Representative Dustin M. White

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