PORTLAND, Maine — Sen. Olympia Snowe spoke with job seekers Tuesday at a busy career fair and said government needs to provide businesses with the confidence to invest in new workers and capital equipment.
Hundreds crowded into the job fair, held at the Italian Heritage Center, many looking for work after being unemployed for months, if not years. While the recession has been officially over since June 2009, the economic recovery has been largely jobless, with many businesses hesitating to pull the trigger on new hires.
The latest national unemployment rate in February was 8.9 percent, with 13.7 million unemployed. In Maine, the unemployment rate has trended lower, and was at 7.5 percent in January, the latest month for which data were available.
“I think that certainty has to be provided to businesses so they will take the risk in hiring new employees and making investments in capital equipment,” said Snowe, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.
The types of policies promulgated by both the Obama administration and Congress have burdened business with unpredictable costs of regulation, said Snowe.
“We have to be very circumspect about adding any costs to doing business,” she said.
Snowe has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would require federal agencies to fully consider the economic impact on small business during the regulatory process. The bill has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.
“We want to force the agencies to review all the regulations,” said Snowe.
Adding to business uncertainty, said Snowe, is the new health care reform passed a year ago. Businesses aren’t sure how their costs might be affected, she said, so they are being more cautious, particularly around their health insurance programs.
Snowe said job fairs like the one she attended Tuesday are important ways for the unemployed to try to tap back into the job market. Many of the stories are tragic, she said.
She spoke for some time with Anthony Bonti, 52, of Sanford, who was laid off about a year ago from Sig Sauer, a gun manufacturer in Exeter, N.H. The company had lost a federal contract, had invested in a new building, and had to lay off some employees, Bonti said.
“I’m looking for anything,” said Bonti, after chatting with representatives from Bath Iron Works.
Bonti is a veteran who served eight years of active duty and another 14 in the reserves.
“It’s tough, I’ve tried for federal jobs, state jobs — I have so much background,” said Bonti.
Bonti, a gunsmith, said he recently was turned down for a Transportation Security Administration job and was told he was medically disqualified because he has chronic gout. He spoke with Snowe about that, noting that it’s controlled with medication, and he has worked for years on his feet without it affecting him.
Bonti said he believed he was turned down for a lot of jobs because of his age. Many of the job seekers at the fair were middle-age.
Donna Marie Laverriere of Biddeford had her IT job at the University of New England outsourced from under her last November. She had worked there for almost 12 years. She has been looking for work for the past four months, and has at least 70 resumes out, she said.
This week, things started popping, with two interviews for jobs. She still wanted to come to the job fair and see what might be available, she said.
“I want to keep looking — have some options,” said Laverriere, 55.
She said she found it hard to find work because the positions she was seeking were not entry-level, and she was looking for higher-paying jobs.
Robin Russell of Portland was laid off in April 2009 from the Maine College of Art, where she had worked in an office for eight years. Jobs were largely nonexistent from 2009 into 2010, she said, and she had one interview in about a year and a half. From July of last year to this month, she worked as a temp employee in a payroll department, she said.
“It’s still tight out there,” she said.
But she said coming to the job fair was positive, and let her mingle with other professionals “to keep your encouragement up.”
Russell said it was difficult for her, because she didn’t qualify for many federal programs that would provide medical assistance, nutrition help, etc.
Lori Brogan of Portland last worked eight months ago for a variety store in Westbrook that closed down. The 41-year-old has two daughters — one in college, the other in the military. Brogan said she has been on disability and is looking to get off the assistance and back into the work force.
The job fair turned out to be a good move for Brogan.
“My first five minutes here, I got a job interview,” she said.