I worked as a crane operator at the paper mill in Bucksport for more than 28 years. I still remember the day I got the call that I was being offered a job at the mill. I was so happy to get a job with good pay and benefits. In the 28 years I worked there, I worked hard and often put in long hours, but I knew I was getting a fair paycheck for it. After 28 years, I was making $23 per hour, plus benefits.
We were all really stunned when the Verso Paper mill shut down. What would we do now? Like many of my co-workers, I was in my late 50s. Through no fault of our own, we had lost our jobs and needed to figure out what comes next. There are not a lot of options for us. As everyone knows, there have been many mill layoffs across our region in recent years, and there are a lot of people in the same situation as me.
After the mill closed, I was eager to work. I assumed it would not be too hard to find a decent paying job. I went out to look for jobs. I went into a local business and asked if they were hiring. They were, so I took an application. Before I left, I asked what was the starting pay. My jaw dropped when they told me it was only $8 per hour. I went into several more businesses to apply only to find out that their starting pay was only $8 or $8.50 per hour.
In all my years working at the mill, I had lost track of what wages were like out there. I had no idea wages were so low for so many workers. Almost every job I applied for offered only $8 per hour. For full-time work, that’s just over $16,000 per year — before taxes are taken out. We all know nobody can make it on that little.
Now I’m working at a deli in a convenience store. I started at $9 per hour and now make $10. It’s better than $8, but it is still not enough.
It’s really tough to make ends meet on these low wages. I can’t afford to pay for a health insurance premium. My adult daughter pays for my premium so I can have coverage.
Low wages have a big impact on local stores. I used to be able to buy my groceries and other basics without worrying too much about the cost. Millworkers would spend their money right back in the local economy. Now I can only afford the essentials. I can hardly get by on $10 per hour. I can’t imagine how anyone with kids or child care costs does it.
I was shocked when I learned that Gov. Paul LePage had vetoed a bill to increase the minimum wage. How could anyone oppose this? Too many Maine people are really struggling, and low wages hurt all of us.
Thankfully, we have a chance to do something about it. I knew I had to speak up and get involved when I heard about the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. Question 4 will raise the minimum wage from its current level of $7.50 per hour to $9 in 2017 and then by a dollar per hour per year until it reaches $12 in 2020, with raises afterward based on the cost of living, using the consumer price index.
This minimum wage increase will help parents, children and also older workers in our state. One in four workers over the age of 55 will see a wage increase if Question 4 passes. It is really hard to lose a job and restart your life when you’re in your late 50s or early 60s. It’s even more difficult when most jobs out there are low paying. Older workers who’ve worked hard their whole life deserve to be paid fairly. They shouldn’t be having to choose between their groceries and their prescriptions. They would really benefit from this increase.
I hope everyone will join me in voting yes on Question 4 this November so struggling workers can get a much needed raise. People who work for a living deserve to be able to make a living; it’s plain and simple.
Raye Rolston worked as a crane operator at the former Bucksport paper mill for 28 years. She lives in Stockton Springs.