December 18, 2017
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LePage leaves hundreds of unemployed in the dark on future of job training

By Erin Rhoda, BDN Staff
Updated:
Nick Sambides | BDN
Nick Sambides | BDN
BREWER, Maine -- 050517 -- Gov. Paul LePage chats casually during a tour of auto parts manufacturer Somic America's factory floor in Brewer on Friday. Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN

Workers, business representatives, economic development officials and education providers on Thursday continued to express bewilderment and anger at Gov. Paul LePage’s apparent decision to withhold millions of dollars in federal funding from regional job training programs.

Attendees at a Northeastern Workforce Development Board meeting in Bangor also conveyed frustration with the lack of information being provided by Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Labor about a move that would end career counseling, job training and education, on-the-job training and work experience services for a couple thousand people across the state each year.

A Maine Department of Labor official alerted the Northeastern workforce board’s executive director Friday, Sept. 8, that the state had sent a letter to the federal government stating that it was withdrawing from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act-funded program, which last year brought $9.4 million to Maine for 2,132 job seekers. But the state has painted a fuzzier picture in public.

“Any statement indicating that the Governor has rejected this funding is categorically untrue,” read a prepared statement sent by the Maine Department of Labor to the BDN. “We will work with the U.S. Department of Labor to identify the manner in which the federal government can continue to provide this job training funding to Maine with only one layer of administrative costs.”

The U.S. Department of Labor, however, has twice rejected LePage’s bid to eliminate Maine’s three regional workforce boards — which oversee job training services for low-income adults, laid-off workers and struggling youth — in favor of one statewide board. When asked how Maine could still collect federal funding if it doesn’t participate in the program and isn’t allowed to have one statewide layer of administration, the Maine Department of Labor did not respond.

The federal government confirmed that it has LePage’s letter, but it has not commented on it nor released it to local workforce officials or the BDN. The Maine Department of Labor has not yet responded to an official request the BDN made under the Maine Freedom of Access Act on Tuesday, Sept. 12, to release the letter. Meanwhile, career centers have started informing their clients that they may lose funding for their tuition.

Rob Moreau, 33, of China, was one of them. His career counselor told him she didn’t know what would happen. “Everything was up in the air,” he said.

He likely wouldn’t have gone to college at all after getting laid off from his job as a delivery coordinator at Home Depot if it wasn’t for the direction and financial help he received through the Augusta CareerCenter, he said. He has two more semesters to go to complete his associate’s degree in radiologic technology, so he can get a job taking X-rays.

The WIOA-funded program pays not just for his tuition but child care for his 1-year-old daughter when he’s in class and reimburses him for mileage to school at Kennebec Valley Community College.

“It means we can afford to eat,” said Moreau’s wife, Shelby. “It means we can afford to survive. Really it boils down to being able to afford the bills.”

The couple will try to find a way to continue paying tuition if the program’s funding is eliminated, they said. It could mean accruing more debt. Or Shelby Moreau, who currently holds a full-time job, said she might have to find additional work, leaving less time to spend with her daughter.

Time is running out for training participants largely because the state, for the first time, dispersed just one quarter of the funding for the program year, which runs from July 2017 to June 2018. Two of the three workforce boards — the Northeastern board based in Bangor and Central/Western Maine Workforce Development Board in Lewiston — took the reduced amount.

“The funding goes through Sept. 30. We have until Oct. 31 to expend it. Beyond that we are still really in the dark about what to do,” said Nicole Fletcher, chairwoman of the Northeastern workforce board, which manages the federal funding for job training services in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock, Aroostook and Washington counties.

The remaining board, Coastal Counties Workforce Board based in Brunswick, did not accept the quarterly funding arrangement and filed a grievance with the state Aug. 2, arguing that not receiving the full year of funding violated the law. The state denied the grievance, and Coastal Counties has appealed to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The boards are in the dark about more than what, exactly, LePage wrote in his letter to the federal government. They also still don’t know how much money Maine was supposed to receive this year for job training.

Coastal Counties filed an official request under the Freedom of Access Act with the state for the sum July 18 but hasn’t received an answer, said Michael Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., which oversees training on behalf of the board. In previous years the total amount has ranged from $7 million to $10 million, depending on national and state economic trends.

Bourret said he has received no phone call or email from either the state or federal government about next steps.

“There are people out there in the street, and they’re affected by this, and there are staff who work very hard, and they’re affected by this. It’s unconscionable. It’s that simple,” he said.

One of the Northeastern board’s service providers, Eastern Maine Development Corporation, currently has 220 adults, young people and dislocated workers enrolled in WIOA-funded training, education classes or in on-the-job training placements with employers.

“As far as we’re aware, there will be no resources left to pay for their expenses,” said Jon Farley with EMDC. “That’s really our concern right now, are those 220 people on our caseload.”

Joanna Russell, the Northeastern board’s executive director, said she wished she had answers. “I have received absolutely no guidance or direction from MDOL on what to do, how to actually transition. If they plan to hold the funds and then eliminate the local areas, which is clearly the goal, what’s the plan?” she said. “We have leases for sites across the state of Maine. We have contracts we’ve signed.”

“I’m standing here, and I don’t know,” she continued. “I haven’t even seen the darn letter.”

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