Working with state employees critical for Maine

Posted May 24, 2010, at 6:20 p.m.

There are real challenges facing Maine’s next governor, so it was disappointing to see Richard Kivel trivialize the gubernatorial elections into a contest of which candidate would get rid of the most state workers, “Which candidate will address state pay, benefits?” (BDN, May 15-16). Kivel seems content putting his magic number of 10 percent in a suitcase and inviting all of the candidates to play an episode of the TV show “Deal or No Deal.”

Kivel’s OpEd column appears to be part of a coordinated attack on the wages and benefits of all workers in Maine and across our nation. He is hawking a race to the bottom in which all workers lose. In this race to the bottom, workers are pitted against each other.

They are prevented from having a voice at work. They are relegated to a lifetime of low wages with no chance of advancement or promotion. Benefits like vacation time, sick leave, health insurance and a retirement plan become things that are too expensive, things that should be taken away from workers rather than gained by workers. Fortunately that’s not the Maine way.

There’s no question that Maine’s next governor will face huge challenges. Here are three:

More than 30,000 Maine workers have lost their jobs in the past two years. Nationally, 6 million workers have been laid off. One challenge of our next governor will be to keep Maine people working and to foster the development of jobs that pay a living wage — rather than laying off hundreds of public employees who provide critical services.

More than 130,000 Mainers don’t have health insurance and thousands more are at risk of losing theirs because of skyrocketing premiums. Nationally, more than 45 million Americans lack coverage. While the national health care law will go a long way toward solving this critical problem, Maine’s next governor will need to take a leadership role in making sure that Maine families can take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick.

In times of economic crisis, public services are needed more than ever. Our next governor will need to make sure that Maine’s safety net is there for those who need it. For instance, over the past two years, Mainers have been descending on their local CareerCenters and community colleges to strengthen their job skills so they can find employment, re-employment or a better job, or even start their own business. This is how we rebuild Maine’s economy.

Kivel must not have seen the latest report on how badly state workers’ pay lags behind other folks. The National Institute for Retirement Security and the Center for Excellence in State and Local Government found that when you account for education and experience differences, state workers earn 11 percent less than their private sector counterparts. Read the report at: http://www.nirsonline.org/storage/nirs/documents/final_out_of_balance_report_april_2010.pdf.

We’re obviously not in it for the money despite Kivel’s assertions. We’re in it because we truly care about the people we serve and the services we provide. In this recession, we are seeing many middle-income families who never thought they would have to turn to state or local community programs for help. Let’s all turn to each and not on each other in these tough times.

So instead of attacking state workers who make 11 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector, maybe we should all be working toward an environment where all workers, state and private sector alike, are valued for their own unique contributions to our economy. Let’s work together to improve all workers’ wages and benefits. That, in turn, makes Maine an even better place to live and raise a family.

Bruce Hodsdon, a resident of Port Clyde, is president of the Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union.

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