Maine union workers protest wage freeze

LEWISTON — About a dozen state workers marched along Main Street outside the Department of Health and Human Services office Wednesday to protest going more than four years without raises.

Scott Thistle/Sun Journal

Ray Heathco, a Maine Department of Health and Human Services employee, walks along Main Street in Lewiston on Wednesday holding a sign to protest state employee wage freezes that have been in effect for four years. The workers, protesting during their lunch breaks, said they oppose Gov. Paul LePage's budget proposal because it would leave the pay freezes in place for another two years.

The DHHS workers, members of the more than 10,000-member Maine State Employees Association, used their lunch hour to bring attention to what they say are unfair wages.

The workers said they oppose Republican Gov. Paul LePage's budget proposal because it would leave in place pay freezes initiated by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci in 2009.

The workers walked back and forth on the sidewalk holding signs with messages including, "Tax breaks for the rich, pay cuts for the rest of us." They chanted slogans, such as, "Hey, hey what do you say? Why do workers have to pay?"

Motorists honked horns enthusiastically, but it was unclear whether they were supporting or opposing the picketers.

Union spokesman Tom Farkas said the "informational picket" was intended to raise public awareness of the state budget.

He said contracted merit increases and so-called step increases were frozen by Baldacci and the Legislature in 2009, but that was meant as a temporary measure during the worst of the "great recession."

LePage's subsequent budget kept those freezes in place and reduced employee benefit packages while increasing state workers' share of medical insurance costs, Farkas said.

He said cuts to health insurance, wages and retirement benefits have cost state workers an estimated $1 billion.

Lawmakers also froze longevity pay increases in 2009 for employees who have worked for the state for 15 years or more. That 25-cent-per-hour increase had been given to employees who reached 15 years and again at 25 years of service. LePage's current budget proposes eliminating the longevity pay, Farkas said.

He said the pay freeze and benefit cuts and the elimination of about 1,000 state jobs has led to recruitment and retention problems for the state.

Picketer Ray Heathco, 66, of Auburn has worked for the state for 24 years. He said the current situation wasn't only costing employees pay but was also having a negative effect on the state's budget. Heathco is involved in collecting child-support payments, and he said that support goes not only to the poor but to any working-class family that is in need of assistance in getting child support from a deadbeat parent.

Heathco said caseloads for state workers were not going down, but the number of workers left to handle those caseloads were, in part due to hiring freezes and more workers leaving for better-paying jobs in the private sector.

The funding he and his colleagues help collect offsets General Assistance and other types of state subsidies for families in need. That, in turn, saves taxpayers money, Heathco said.

"You are only going to work so many cases a day," Heathco said. The state is also working to meet federal requirements that would allow it to collect federal funds.

The DHHS workers were protesting because they wanted to make sure the Legislature and LePage pass a state budget, Heathco said. He said LePage has been reluctant to raise any state taxes because he wants to protect tax breaks for Maine's wealthiest families.

Heathco said his response to unemployed Mainers who might say state workers should be happy they have a job is, "We are happy we have a job, but at the same time a good reason why we don't have a fair wage is we aren't really asking the people who have the majority of the money to pay for their share."

Farkas said the union was pushing the Legislature to overturn state income tax cuts made two years ago. Those tax breaks, which the LePage administration has said eliminates state income taxes for 70,000 low-income families, go into effect this tax year.

Farkas also said Maine workers were paid less than what they could make in comparable jobs in the private sector and that had led to retention and recruitment problems.

In fact, Maine Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett told the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee in February that the wage freezes were affecting recruitment and retention. Workers in several key fields were leaving state government for the private sector and better pay, Millett said.

Farkas said state workers starting today are paid the same wage as their colleagues who have been on the job for four years or more.

"It's simply not right," he said.

The Legislature is working to craft a new state budget and must have one in place by the end of the fiscal year on June 30 to avoid a state-government shutdown.

Cynthia Montgomery, the chief counsel with the state's Office of Employee Relations, which negotiates union contracts on behalf of the governor, said Wednesday they have been working in good faith to reach an agreement with the union on wages and other benefits.

But Montgomery said it was ultimately up to the Legislature to set the final financial arrangements in the state budget.

"The budget has to be passed by the Legislature," Montgomery said. She said it was difficult because while the executive branch is tasked with negotiating state worker contracts, "the Legislature holds the purse strings."

Montgomery confirmed that state workers have gone for more than four years without pay increases. "And I am one of those state workers, as well," she said.

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the House chair of the Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said Wednesday the committee was well aware of the problems the pay freeze and benefit cuts were having on the state's ability to retain and recruit employees.

Rotundo also said it was unfair for the administration to suggest the Legislature was responsible for the long-term freeze and noted that LePage's most current budget proposal maintains the salary freeze and further reduces state employee benefits. 

"State employee wages and benefits are among the things this Legislature is currently working to restore as we move forward with our budget proposals," Rotundo said.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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Comments

David  Cote's picture

No sympathy...

There are a number of workers in the private sector who have not received raises in several years, and some who have had to accept wage cuts, along with a reduction in benefits. Then there are the unionized postal letter carriers, some who took a $6.00 an hour pay cut recently. Protesting is certainly within the state worker's rights. However, considering the economic situation some people I know are saddled with, I find myself to be unsympathetic toward the plight of the state worker.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Welcome to LePage's Maine..........

I just hope the State employees are pretty well off, if not, they might just as well put their house up for sale now. It's only a matter of time before LePage and his backward delusional methodology makes it even hard to put gas in the car. He doesn't care, he still gets his paycheck, and he is keeping in line with his tea party idols.
Just this week, we've been able to add "delusional"and "paranoid" to his already blatantly obvious lack of empathy. How many more attribute like these are we going to be able to swallow. He is ruining this State one dollar at a time, and he seems to be enjoying it.
Maybe we should let Ms Bennet take a whirl, she at least knows all the words to make it better. and unlike LePage, she can put them in the right order...............

Robert McQueeney's picture

In this economy

In this economy, many of us have not had a raise. For me, it's now 11 years, in fact, my pay has regressed. Please do not forget, if they get a raise, 10,000 strong of them, that means that all the taxpayers in Maine will have to pay more in taxes to support those raises. That means increased taxes for 445,000, all to satisfy 10,000 people. We'd all like a raise, but please look at the bigger picture. The people who will have to foot the bill for your raise haven't had a raise in a good long time either.

Steve  Dosh's picture

Maine union workers protest wage freeze

Scott 15.05.29 15:30 hst ?
Did n e one expect them to , like , not protest ?
Union rules • and has for > 1 0 0 years , so far
http://www.nps.gov/lowe/index.htm
hth ? Steve

Noel Foss's picture

Seems suspect.

"Farkas also said Maine workers were paid less than what they could make in comparable jobs in the private sector"

Why don't they go get those jobs in the private sector, then? Probably because the hours are worse, they get fewer holidays (both paid and unpaid), and they'd be responsible for purchasing their own health care and funding their own retirements. Plus, they'd have to deal with raises that are based on merit rather than longevity.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Because

Like my father in law would say..."Every Koch sucker has his own preferred taste"....

Why do fish swim upstream when it is easier to go down?

Steve  Dosh's picture

Noel ? Good question .

Noel ? Good question . They gotta' work 30 years like everyone else . Retire at 70 . Have you ever held down a job where you have had health insurance , a pension , possibly an annuity , been ' vested , ' ' 'tenured ' or paid in to a 301 k plan ? That's why . . ..btw - It is only a rhetorical question hth ? Steve

Thomas Maher's picture

What are you talking about? I

What are you talking about? I am a state worker and can write complete sentences with fully formed thoughts. Exactly what is a 301K plan?

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Typo with a 3

It is only a rhetorical question...Steve writes in codes and symbols...

Noel Foss's picture

Yeah, I suspect he's writing on a cell phone

And that his thumbs are perhaps too large for the buttons, and his brain to fast for his thumbs. Oftentimes translating his posts requires some creative editing on your part.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

It is amazing Steve for some....

Where there are those that feel nobody should have livable wages, that can provide you more than a minimum wage, with a pension that provides retirement instead of living off of nothing or just SS, where to health care is an added negotiated benefit in contrast to non if on a lousy wage package.

If it is to choose the lesser of two evils, common sense would tell you the hopeful positive path to take.

But it appears that there are those that seem all should have nothing, if they have nothing or no way to obtain the same. Because they all work for survival and the fruits of life, but those that can have a better route to another way of life that should be taken when available.

But had those that bitch had the opportunity to have a union job in contrast to a poor livable NON package they too would choose the wisest road to a full fruitful lifestyle than half.....you would think anyway....

There are those that live and learn and those that just live...the old adage you snooze -- you loose....I had that open gate and entered for the better life of retirement with dignity and respect and damn good pensions, in my case.

Solidarity is strength, alone is having less....

Noel Foss's picture

In this case...

All those benefits that you're touting from your "Union Recruiter's Handbook" are being paid for by the residents of the state, not the Koch Brothers. And the wages they're making now are certainly withing the realm of "livable"
Consider this: The average wage in Maine is around $38,000, per an article in the BDN from early last year (link #1 below). The average wage for a state employee in Maine is around $45,000, according to the Maine Open Government site (link #2 below).

I'm not saying that these folks don't deserve a livable wage. But I have a hard time sympathizing with somebody who's demanding higher pay when they already make more than the average private-sector worker whose taxes pay their wage. I don't take issue with the fact that they belong to a Union; I take issue with the fact that they're complaining about their jobs. They already earn a higher average wage, have more vacation days, and have a significantly more generous retirement and health insurance plan than their private sector counterparts. But that's not good enough? Please.

LINKS:
1) https://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/29/business/maine-earnings-growth-ra...

2) http://maineopengov.org/index.php/payrolls/maine-state-government/

Thomas Maher's picture

Earned

Those paychecks are earned. Those are earned benefits. The State of Maine did a study that took legal action to discover and that study proved that state employees when compared based on experience, training, and length of service get paid less than private counterparts.
What part of proof don't you like? The part that disagrees with your preconceptions, or the part that disagrees with Fox news?
MaineOpengov. Right wing, site so slanted that they would accuse a union fire fighter of child abuse for carrying a kid down a ladder in winter without a coat.

Noel Foss's picture

Who performed the study?

Link to the "proof" please.
Whether you like the "slant" of MaineOpengov or not, they provide accountability of the wages that state employees are paid, which is all I use the site for. I don't read any of their articles or support any of what they do besides that. If you care to provide a more liberal website that also happens to list the salaries of every state employee, I'll compare and contrast data. In the meantime, I guess if you can't dispute the information, attack the source, right?
I don't recall ever saying that those benefits and paychecks weren't earned; I simply pointed out that they're often quite a bit more generous than what's available in the private sector, which is a fact that has been proven by numerous studies and articles. I can provide you some links should you care to read them for yourself, or you can do some googling.

Yes, the paychecks of the state employees are earned. I'm assuming they're not just paying you to sit you your butts and play Angry Birds on your cell phones all day like the nice young lady behind the counter at the BMV was doing the other day (sorry, low blow but a true story). However, the state workers would do well to remember that their paychecks are being provided by the citizens of the state of Maine. Many of whom haven't seen a raise in years, and whose expenses have increased every bit as much as yours (in many cases, probably more than yours).
Now if you want to get bent out of shape because you think I'm attacking you, you can go right ahead and do it. But don't act like I'm being unreasonable simply because I don't have much patience for people who look a gift horse in the mouth.

Thomas Maher's picture

Proof Given

I provided the link. I have not heard the response.

http://www.mseaseiu.org/bulletin/LaborMarketSurvey.pdf

The study was outsourced by the governor, not done by the Union or by state employees.

Noel Foss's picture

Sorry again for the delay

Finally had a chance to read over the report this morning before work. It would have been nice not to have to turn my monitor sideways for those last tables...
Too bad they didn't include a more detailed table on the combined benefits/salary values, since that's what we're really discussing. Sometime when I've got the time (maybe a rainy weekend where I can't work outside all day) I'll have to go through and add the numbers up for the detailed charts to get more detail on combined benefits/salary values.
Would have been nice to have seen more indians and fewer chiefs too, but...they didn't take the survey with our conversation in mind.

I guess my response for now is that this survey just reinforces what we were already saying; that hourly compensation for state workers may be lower on average but the benefits are generally more generous. Unfortunately, this report's kind of thin on the combined values.
Shrug. Oh well.

Noel Foss's picture

Sorry, Mondays are busy days at work.

Haven't had time to read over the study yet. I know you posted it the other day, but I'm in front of a computer all week, so I try to avoid it on the weekends. Not trying to ignore you, just haven't had a chance yet.
I appreciate the link, though.

Thomas Maher's picture

Thanks but

Actually the reports shows that most state employees are paid less including benefits. There are exceptions of course and the inclusion of highly paid non-union employees throws the scale off even further. Then on retirement the cut in any possible COLA to 3% regardless of inflation added to the reduction of almost all earned SS benefits is a hidden cut.
The fact is that the state mandated employees out of SS because the pension system costs less than SS.

Noel Foss's picture

Shrug.

The annoyingly sideways table titled "Wage Rates Benefits Values Combined" says differently. There's more of rows in the positive than in the negative, indicating (if I read the data correctly) that the state workers are coming out ahead of the game vs their private sector counterparts when you account for total compensation. But it's only one table on the study, hence my lamentation that they didn't expound on that. As for union members throwing off the average, there's unions in the private sector too, so it's impossible to say for certain in which direction they weighted the results, especially since the study didn't note union membership (another deficiency in regards to our discussion)
As for COLA's after retirement; my 401K certainly won't have one, plus it's subject to taxes when I withdraw. And I'm a member of the lucky generation that can't count on SS to be around when I'm ready to retire, so I can count that deduction from my paychecks basically as money *colorful euphemism for urinated* down a hole. And if SS does happen to be around when I'm old enough to draw on it, the COLA on that has averaged less than 3% over the last 30 years (link below), and the recent change to how they calculate inflation at the federal level will probably mean even lower COLA's for SS in the future.

Link:
http://www.ssa.gov/cola/automatic-cola.htm

Thomas Maher's picture

No you read it wrong

A total comparison when including years of experience, training, and education show that the employees earn less. That is why the study had to have lawyers pry it out of the hands of the State.
I pay taxes on the money going to my pension unlike many pre tax savings plans. I then pay taxes again whenever I take it out.
I guess your summary is that as long as you have it hard, and you were definitely put through the wringer thanks to Bush and company, then no one else should do any better?
SS Colas can rise above 3%. LePage and the Tea Party limited state COLAs to 3% regardless of inflation, then threw a three year freeze on top of it.
I didn't say Union membership threw it off, I said non union highly paid employees threw it off.

Noel Foss's picture

Meh.

Whether you're talking union or non-union, there's highly paid people that wreck the bell curve both inside and outside of the state. As I noted above, since the study didn't note union membership, it's impossible to tell what effect it had, and in which direction it weighted the study.
We were talking about total compensation, and this study only has one table addressing that. You can take away what you want from the study, but there's no ignoring that table showing that total compensation is often higher for state employees, unless you're only reading selectively to reinforce your viewpoint.
Saying that my summary is "I have it hard, so everybody else should have it hard too" is akin to my saying that your summary is "I work for the state, and I already have a better benefits package, a better schedule and more time off than the average Mainer, but I should make more money too." I'm not saying that I have it hard; on the contrary, I think I've got things pretty good. I own my own home, have a reliable (not new) car, a couple motorcycles, and some other assorted toys. But it's interesting that I can do that, despite the fact that I make less money and pay more out of pocket for my benefits than the average state worker who's saying they don't make enough money.
Just because SS COLA's CAN rise above 3% doesn't mean that they will. Especially when you consider the incredible pinch that the SS program is going to be under as more and more of the boomers retire. The trend for SS COLA's since they enacted them back in the 70's has been towards decreasing amounts. The averages in the late 70's and 80's were considerably higher than in the 90's and 00's. And in recent years it's been all over the place, with a low of 0%, and a high of nearly 6%.
If you want my summary, I guess it's this: The State is in the middle of a down economy, with budget crises occurring left and right at both the town and state levels because of insufficient or lower-than-anticipated funding. Not the best time to be issuing raises. You wouldn't see it in a private business that can't afford to pay its bills; it doesn't make sense to do it with a government that can't. So, I don't support the goal of a raise for State employees right now.

Thomas Maher's picture

LOL

Laughing with you, not at you. Being in front of a PC keeps feeds this geek's habit. 24hrs without the net and I would be twitching. They will probably close the thread soon.

Noel Foss's picture

Bah.

If I can, I don't even turn the computer on Saturday or Sunday. No smart phone either. I'd really rather read a book or a magazine most of the time. Some of my friends & family have accused me of being a luddite (totally not true, because I love my motorcycle and my power tools)

Thomas Maher's picture

Not factual

I have studied the so called salaries reported. In many cases they are far from accurate. They include, by double counting the pension cost the employee pays in. Example: Ten dollars an hour, the employee pays sixty five cents an hour towards their pension. Their pay is reported as Ten dollars sixty five cents an hour.
They also refuse to take information off the website even if it contains information that could lead a spousal abuser to their victim. They have been asked and the reply is politely and paraphrased as "tough luck".
They also misrepresent the costs of the pension the state pays. I won't bore you but the state portion is misrepresented by a factor of about three hundred percent.
I stand by my statement. If I did say they are a right wing, slanted, B.S., organization with the sole intent of destroying hard working people, then it is because I minimized the intent.

You forgot to respond to the fact that fairly measured state employees, (By the State's own study) are paid less, including benefits than the equivalent jobs in private industry. (In almost, not all, cases)

Noel Foss's picture

Can't respond to something I haven't seen, can I?

I asked for a link to said study; you've not yet provided it and I haven't managed to locate it yet on the web (to be fair, the weather was so nice yesterday evening I didn't spend much time looking)
That being said, a study performed by an independent agency that the state hired would carry a lot more weight than a study carried out by state employees (for obvious reasons).
Salaries for state employees engaged in similar jobs as their private-sector counterparts may be lower, but the benefits packages are generally much more generous. For instance, my out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare currently run me nearly $4000 a year, before you even consider the copays (typically between $25-$50, with an ER visit costing $250) and services not fully covered. That's not a family plan; that's just me, and I'm under 30 with no history of illness. What do you pay for healthcare?

Thomas Maher's picture

Refreshing

Whether we agree or not, you are a refreshing change from the mouth breathers that hate state employees reflexively.

The link to the study that was NOT done by state employees includes the cost of benefits in the comparison.
This is not a Union study, even though the link is at a Union site.
With my family care I pay about Six thousand a year before co pays and deductibles.

Again, thank you for your intelligent comments and questions even if we end up not completely agreeing.

http://www.mseaseiu.org/bulletin/LaborMarketSurvey.pdf

Noel Foss's picture

I appreciate you keeping your punches above the beltline too.

I've never really seen the point in a discussion that rapidly dissolves into an insult contest, but it does seem like it happens a lot on here. Lots of folks seem to have a hard time grasping that you can disagree completely with somebody, but still be polite.
Makes it kind of hard to talk politics sometimes...

Bob White's picture

That's right if you don't

That's right if you don't like your job get another don't complain about it. With this economy you should be happy to have a job.

Thomas Maher's picture

Crawl if you like

The stock market is doing great, those making 250K and up are doing great. They are doing great by taking your money. If you choose to crawl, to beg, to lick someone's boots because they choose to underpay you, insult you, and demand gratitude, you are free to follow your own advice............crawl.
I am an American and too proud of my work, my history, and my country to become Chinese.

Noel Foss's picture

I hate to point this out....

well, actually, no I don't.
As a government employee, you're taking our money, technically.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Whoa

They are taking their money too, so they are paying themselves too.....that comment is so weak...yours, all Mainers and theirs is all monies that goes to many other coffers and sew buttons....

Noel Foss's picture

Weak?

How is that weak? It's 100% fact.
Moreso, in fact, than the idea that everybody making over $250k is taking my money. The rich guys probably get it eventually, but since I buy locally and from small businesses as often as I can, I'm not handing it over directly; I'm supporting other local folks along the way.

Anybody who works for the state is being paid by the citizens of that state. If you care to try to disprove that, best of luck.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Not saying it to disprove it

It is always you as the only payee, they too pay on their own wages...Yo make it sound like its hundreds out of your pocket whereas it is literally Your Pennies times millions of others that make up their share of wages....if you actually could see what you actually paid, you would say oh shit that is pennies....

I buy locally too and anybody that uses a Walmart is no American patriot as they claim they are.

One Walmart's Low Wages Could Cost Taxpayers $900,000 Per Year, House Dems Find

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/31/walmart-taxpayers-house-report_...

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