AUGUSTA, Maine — State Rep. Andrew O’Brien sent a letter to Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday imploring him to meet job seekers in the wake of comments from the governor that some Mainers were staying on unemployment because the benefits are good.
“He has implied that the unemployed are unemployed by their choosing,” O’Brien said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t think that’s the case. There are a lot of people hurting and they want a job, but there are a lot of barriers to employment.
“The governor’s focus is on red tape and streamlining regulations and that’s fine, but I don’t think he’s getting the whole story.”
At the second of three job creation workshops last week in Bangor, LePage told those in attendance that some Mainers who are collecting unemployment insurance might be too comfortable at home.
“We have got to convince those who can work that we need to get them back to work. Quite frankly, I think that might be a sign that we’re paying them a bit too much when they’re at home not working,” the governor said.
During an address to the Legislature in February, when the governor was pitching a plan to reform welfare programs, LePage said: “Those that can work — we will simply ask them to get a job.”
O’Brien said the governor’s words might sound good to some but they don’t match reality.
“I felt personally insulted because I’ve been in that position many times,” he said.
O’Brien is doing temp work for the time being and said he’s lucky because his health insurance is part of the compensation package he gets for serving in the Maine House. Others are not as fortunate.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the governor was not trying to belittle unemployed workers but simply passing along concerns he has heard from employers.
“There is no plan to lower unemployment insurance,” she said. “The governor realizes that in this terrible economy there are people that want to work and he is sympathetic to the struggles that many Mainers are facing.
“We are, however, fooling ourselves if we don’t think there are some people taking advantage of the system who would rather collect unemployment than get a job.”
Bennett also said the governor believes that a skills gap is making Maine’s unemployment problem bigger than it needs to be.
In September, approximately 51,900 Mainers were unemployed. Of that group, roughly 19,000 people collected unemployment each week. That means the vast majority were not collecting unemployment.
As for the governor’s claim that the benefits are too high, O’Brien said the average per-hour rate for unemployment insurance in Maine is $6.97, less than the minimum wage.
“I don’t know anyone preferring to collect what amounts to a pittance over a hard-earned paycheck,” O’Brien wrote in his letter to LePage. “Your proposal to cut the unemployment benefits for this struggling group of people, who are barely able to pay for heating oil or feed their families, is not the way to improve our economic situation.”
O’Brien said he called the governor’s office last week to request a meeting. He was told the governor was busy but he could meet with economic adviser John Butera. That meeting hasn’t happened yet but the two spoke late Wednesday.
The Lincolnville representative said what he really wants is for the governor to visit some career centers around the state instead of just listening to employers.
Bennett didn’t say whether that is something the governor is considering.
She said the governor is addressing issues that will enable the private sector to put Mainers back to work. For instance, she said LePage is working with local Workforce Investment Boards to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of job training so people who are unemployed can acquire the skills needed in today’s job market.