LEWISTON, Maine — About a dozen state workers marched along Main Street and just outside their Department of Health and Human Services office Wednesday protesting more than four years without a raise.
The workers, all members of the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, used their lunch hour to bring attention to what they say are unfair wages.
The workers also said they oppose Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal, which leaves in place pay freezes started by former 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,” and chanting slogans such as, “Hey, hey what do you say? Why do workers have to pay?”
Union spokesman Tom Farkas said the “informational picket” was intended to raise public awareness about the state’s budget.
Farkas said the SEIU represents about 2.2 million employees in the public and medical sectors around the world and about 10,000 in Maine.
Farkas said contracted merit pay increases and step increases were frozen by Baldacci and the Legislature in 2009 but that was meant as a temporary measure as the state and nation was dealing with the worst of the “great recession.”
He added that LePage’s subsequent budget kept those freezes in place and also reduced employee benefit packages while increasing state workers’ share of medical insurance costs.
Combined cuts to health insurance, wages and retirement benefits have cost state workers an estimated $1 billion, Farkas said.
Lawmakers also froze longevity pay increases in 2009 for employees who work for the state for 15 years or more.
That 25-cent per hour increase had been for employees who reach 15 years and then 25 years of service. LePage’s current budget proposes eliminating the longevity pay completely, Farkas said.
Farkas said the pay freeze, benefit cuts and elimination of about 1,000 state jobs has led to recruitment and retention problems for the state.
Ray Heathco, 66, of Auburn, said he’s worked for the state for 24 years and that the current situation was costing employees pay and also having a negative effect on the state’s budget. Heathco works to collect child support payments and said that support goes not only to the poor but to any working-class family that is in need of assistance in collecting child support from a 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 or more workers leaving for better paying jobs in the private sector.
Heathco said 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 allow it to collect federal funds.
Heathco said state workers were protesting because they wanted to make sure the Legislature and LePage get a budget passed. Heathco said LePage has been reluctant to raise any state taxes in an effort 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 LePage’s administration has said eliminate state income taxes for 70,000 low-income families, took effect at the beginning of 2013.
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 February, LePage’s Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett admitted as much when he told the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, the wage freezes were impacting recruitment and retention as workers in several key fields were leaving state government for the private sector and better pay.
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 needs to have one in place by the end of the fiscal year on June 30 to avoid a state-government shutdown.
Attempts to reach LePage’s office for comment were not successful Wednesday.