ORONO, Maine — A week after L.L. Bean announced it will close its Bangor call center and on the same day that Verizon Wireless said it would add 90 customer service employees to its local facility, Gov. Paul LePage made a Wednesday visit to a third call center, where he said wages might be higher if energy costs were lower.
The Nexxlinx call center in Orono employs about 350 people, 250 of whom work for Time Warner. The site director told the governor, who was invited to tour the facility, that the center has 100 job openings and cannot find enough qualified employees to fill them.
“Are they the jobs we want? No,” LePage told a cluster of reporters after his tour, referring to lower-wage jobs such as those at call centers.
The starting wage at NexxLinx is between $8.50 and $9 per hour, plus incentives, according to the company’s chief operating officer, Jeff Buckman. That amounts to about $19,000 per year for employees who work 40 hours per week.
“People can cry and holler all they want, but if we don’t reduce energy costs, we’re going to have two Maines,” LePage said. The other Maine, he said, is in the south, where there are higher-wage jobs.
LePage said that that if energy costs could be lowered, business overhead would be reduced, allowing companies to invest more, which would in turn produce higher-paying jobs.
“Career jobs come through investment,” he said. And career jobs are the ultimate goal.
He compared Maine to places such as Alabama, Texas and Montreal, where he said energy costs are much lower, which encourages companies to relocate there.
But Buckman, whose company has call centers across the country and in Peru and El Salvador, said the issue at the Orono call center isn’t the cost of energy but the challenge of finding good workers to fill those 100 job openings.
“For us, I don’t know if it’s such a big deal — we just need to turn the lights on,” he said. “We’re not operating heavy machinery.”
He said his company is willing to work around people’s schedules, hire college and high school students and train its employees on the job.
“The biggest thing is, once you’re hired, just come to work every day,” he said, explaining that sometimes new hires simply don’t show up after getting their first paycheck.
In the afternoon, LePage reiterated his message about energy costs at the Ellen Leach Home in Brewer, a residence for seniors. There, he spoke to over 30 people about a range of issues.
The audience was receptive, laughing at his jokes and nodding and clapping when he made comments about his no-holds-barred style and his stance on undocumented immigrants.
He insisted on calling them illegal aliens and explained that “what most people in Maine don’t want to acknowledge is that the ‘il’ makes it unlawful,” referring to the spelling of the word “illegal.”
“They are going to our schools, and that’s a real problem for me,” said LePage, who is running against Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler.
“If we can’t build a fence high enough … we ought to go to China and see how they built a wall,” he said, which got laughs.
Several members of the audience told the governor that they were not receiving the veterans benefits that they believed they are qualified to receive. LePage explained veterans benefits are a federal program but promised to send Peter Ogden, the director of the bureau of veterans’ services in Augusta, to Brewer to speak with the Ellen Leach residents.
LePage also was asked about his stance on abortion, which he indicated he is against, and the negative publicity he’s received, to which he responded, “A Republican in Maine is a bad person. The newspapers have not been responsible.”
After his speech and the question-answer period, multiple Ellen Leach residents said they were generally impressed.
“I think he gave a good speech,” said Jean VanWart, who sat in the front and asked at least four questions. “I’m not sure that I agree with all of it.”