Maine needs workers more than ever. Over the next couple decades, the state is projected to see a gap of about 111,000 workers as more people are retiring than joining the labor force. One solution is to encourage more people already in Maine to work.
The state has been overlooking a significant pool of ready workers: people with disabilities. But one major hurdle standing in the way is their fear of losing benefits, especially MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid. In many cases if they make above a certain income, they’ll lose the benefits they need to survive.
They may feel they’re faced with a two options: Live in poverty but retain needed services or get off benefits but lose the services they need most.
Fortunately, there are programs to help ease the transition to work. For example, they can provide the ability to continue receiving a disability check for several months after returning to work or to pay into MaineCare while working to retain consistent coverage. But the programs are not well known, and figuring out what help people can qualify for based on the type of benefits they collect is often complicated.
That’s where community work incentive coordinators come in.
Community work incentive coordinators help those with disabilities understand how their federal benefits, such as Social Security Disability Insurance, and state benefits, such as food stamps and housing subsidies, will change if they return to full-time work. The coordinators also show those with disabilities ways to return to work and still keep necessities such as MaineCare coverage.
Nearly 85,000 people in Maine, ages 18 to 64, are collecting Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income or both. Currently, Maine Medical Center, based in Portland, is the only organization in the state that has community work incentive coordinators. And it only has six of them, who collectively serve about 1,000 clients per year across Maine.
If the state wants to get more people with disabilities into full-time work, more needs to be done to help them transition off some benefits. That means increasing the number of coordinators. The public benefits of putting more people to work would far outweigh the public cost of more positions.
The majority of funding for the coordinators, 70 percent, comes from the state. Of that, 59 percent of the state money is ongoing funding, and 11 percent is temporary funding from a program within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that will end in September.
The Maine Legislature should both ensure funding doesn’t lapse and increase the number of community work incentive coordinators. But it shouldn’t just be a state responsibility. It’s time for the federal government to kick in more, too.
President Donald Trump is supposedly a big supporter of jobs — he has repeatedly said he’ll put people back to work. Benefits counseling is a key tool in getting those with disabilities into self-sustaining employment. And by getting more people with disabilities into jobs, the federal government could reduce its spending for disability benefits by an even greater amount.
We acknowledge that, given the situation in Congress, it is unrealistic to expect more funding. But if federal and state leaders truly believe that people with disabilities can work, then this program should not be a little-known resource with an insufficient number of staff members tasked with helping a population numbering in the tens of thousands.