AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s largest public employee union Tuesday called on the state’s finance commissioner to follow his own advice and negotiate higher pay for state workers.
Maine State Employees Association has started a lobbying campaign highlighting comments made last week by Sawin Millett, the state’s finance chief, to make their case for an end to a four-year pay freeze.
MSEA President Ginette Rivard sent a letter to Millett on March 1 in response to his comments about the impact of frozen state longevity and merit pay on recruiting during his testimony to the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee last week.
“The state’s negotiators, working under your direction, refuse to negotiate over pay for the upcoming biennium,” Rivard wrote.
“While the labor board will tell us whether the state’s position is illegal, our members can tell you that it is unconscionable. … we urge you to take action to address the significant problems you identified in your public statements this week,” she added in her letter.
Last week, Millett told the Legislature’s budget-writing committee that the continuing lack of merit pay increases for state workers inhibits the state’s ability to fill positions and keep them filled.
Millett was responding to lawmakers’ questions about provisions in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget, which would reduce the size of the state workforce by 100 and continue an already four-year freeze on both merit and longevity pay increases.
“It’s getting more and more visible as we work our way through this period of frozen salaries,” Millett said at the time. “The number of qualified applicants and the desire for them to move within state government has been somewhat exacerbated by the lack of merit increases over time. If you’re a valued employee and you’re in a position where you’re doing good work and your salary has been frozen for four years, there’s a tendency on the part of many dedicated employees to do that.”
In a prepared statement released Tuesday, Millett said the merit and longevity pay freezes proposed in LePage’s budget — which originated during the Baldacci administration — would save the state $12 million over the next two years.
“While it is true that the freeze on workers’ pay makes it more difficult to recruit potential employees, the governor is faced with a challenge in these times of diminished revenues — continue to provide services to Maine’s most vulnerable populations or provide pay raises to employees,” Millett said. “We are fortunate to have many dedicated employees, and it is my hope that we can provide increased financial incentives to these valued state employees through the collective bargaining process.”
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage, said Tuesday evening that there is about $8 million set aside in the current biennium for salary increases for state employees, but that LePage’s proposal was borne from the condition of the economy.
“While there are many tough decisions to make, the governor has a requirement to balance the budget,” said Bennett. “We’ve been able to do that without significant layoffs.”
During a press conference Tuesday in Augusta, Rivard and others continued their arguments. Jim Betts, a claims adjustor for the Maine Department of Labor who is also an MSEA member, said the cuts have tangible effects on services as well as workers’ lives. He said the time it took his department of process unemployment claims has see-sawed over the years between a couple of weeks and more than a month.
“Fortunately, that time is now down to about three weeks,” Betts said, according to a press release from the MSEA. “The staff has been working long hours to shorten the wait and our supervisors are working every day to find efficiencies, to support my co-workers and keep morale up.”
Calton Tripp, a union member who is a mechanic for the Maine Department of Transportation, said compensation packages offered by the state make it difficult to fill vacancies.
“New workers have been hired, trained and receive a [commercial driver’s license],” Tripp said. “But because they haven’t had a raise in over four years, they’re leaving and going into the private sector for more money. The state of Maine has actually created an endless cycle of hiring and training workers.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Maine Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett released a prepared statement about state employees' merit and longevity pay freezes on Monday. Millett issued the release on Tuesday.