Four years ago, I had recently moved back to Maine and was actively searching for a job. I spent every day searching help wanted ads, meticulously filling out job applications, tweaking cover letters and visiting the Career Center to use the fax and printer. Like many job-seekers, I found being unemployed was more than a full-time job. It was also a humiliating and demoralizing experience.
I had a college degree, I had worked for several years as a teacher overseas and I couldn’t find a job that could pay the bills. I wasn’t picky. I eventually found a series of temporary, seasonal, part-time and per diem positions working on an assembly line, doing custodial work, shoveling snow, working as a receptionist, raking blueberries, painting houses and mowing lawns. These jobs paid low wages and I found myself drawing off my savings to get by.
My personal experience and similar stories from constituents prompted me to request a meeting with the governor concerning inaccurate and derogatory remarks he made about the unemployed. In November, Gov. Paul LePage told business owners: “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.”
After failed attempts to meet with the governor, I sent him an open letter. My intent in raising this issue is not to criticize insensitive remarks about a vulnerable population of people. It is to let desperate job seekers know that they have nothing to be ashamed of.
We are not facing a “lazy crisis” in this state, we have a jobs crisis. With 3,100 jobs listed in the state job bank and at least 51,000 searching for work, there simply are not enough jobs to fill the demand at this time. The result is a highly competitive game of musical chairs.
With all attention on so-called “job creators,” or folks with enough money to build a business and hire people, we often forget that there are two sides of the coin.
On Saturday, a group of unemployed workers and I met with Gov. LePage for an hour and a half. In my conversation with the governor, he placed much of the blame on “regulations.” In his view, our state’s labor standards and environmental protections are not making us competitive with other states. When I asked if he thought the lack of employment opportunities was unique to Maine, he admitted that it was a nationwide problem and contrasted what he perceived as our “over-regulated” business environment in the U.S. to China.
I explained that I had lived in Asia and had heard first-hand about the terrible working conditions in the outsourced factories there. I had interviewed and reported on guest workers who suffered brutal violence and deportation for trying to negotiate safe working conditions, shorter hours and a fair wage, after experiencing workplace injuries, unpaid overtime and worse.
A race to the bottom may make our country competitive for a third-world standard of living, but it will not bring back middle-class jobs with middle-class wages.
During the last year, Republicans in the Legislature voted to roll back child labor laws, introduced a measure to undercut the minimum wage by creating a “training wage” and pushed for a law to prevent the rights of workers to organize. These kinds of proposals won’t create jobs; rather, they have taken Maine in the wrong direction. Instead, lawmakers should be focused on creating jobs, improving the economy and training our work force for the jobs of the future.
In spite of our disagreements on a range of issues, the governor and I were able to find common ground. Surprisingly, the governor called my letter that prompted the meeting a “big play” and “bull——” in remarks to the media after our meeting. I disagree. I believe we opened a public discussion on an issue that is never far from ordinary Maine people’s minds, whether they are unemployed or just worried about their economic future. Policymakers owe it to their constituencies to look at both sides of the coin.
Andrew O’Brien, D-Lincolnville, represents District 44 in the Maine House of Representatives.