An organization that oversees job training in coastal and southern Maine is suing Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Department of Labor Commissioner John Butera for failing to release millions in federal funds meant to help laid-off workers, low-income adults and struggling young adults find work.
Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., based in Brunswick, filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday to compel the LePage administration to provide it with federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding for the 2016 and 2017 program years.
“This is the most regrettable circumstance. The lawsuit is completely unnecessary provided Gov. LePage merely complies with the obligations of federal law,” said Antoinette Mancusi, deputy director of the organization, which oversees training on behalf of a business-led board for job seekers in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties.
In a Sept. 7 letter to the federal government, LePage said he would no longer participate in the federal program that sends approximately $9 million to the state each year to pay for training for thousands of unemployed workers and helps to fund the state’s network of 12 regional career centers.
The Coastal Counties board is one of three business-led regional workforce development boards in Maine that administer the federal funding and aim to tailor job training services to their local areas.
LePage said he is withdrawing Maine from the WIOA program because the U.S. Department of Labor has not let him replace those three local boards with one statewide board, which he argued would be more cost-effective. The federal government has twice rejected his request because he didn’t work in collaboration with local decisionmakers as required.
While Coastal Counties’ lawsuit in U.S. District Court was not filed on behalf of the other boards, Kelly McDonald, the attorney for Coastal Counties, said ideally it would result in funds being released to all three.
The organization is arguing that federal law requires LePage to send out the federal funding within 30 days after it becomes available to him — which this year happened by August — or seven days after an organization’s local plan is approved, whichever is later. This year, $8.4 million in WIOA funds were available to the state, according to the lawsuit.
“We’re not talking about state funds here. They’re federal funds. They happen to pass through Gov. LePage’s hands, but that doesn’t give him control over them,” McDonald said.
Complicating matters, the Maine Department of Labor sent a letter dated Oct. 23 to Coastal Counties saying it was terminating the organization’s contract for funding left over from the previous program year, 2016.
Because the organization hasn’t received WIOA funding this year, the previous year’s money is “keeping CCWI’s doors open and allowing some limited services to be offered to workers and businesses,” according to the complaint. “Elimination of these funds will result in CCWI shutting down on or around November 30, 2017.”
Seventy-five people who work with job seekers will lose their positions as a result of the funding cut, including 30 in the midcoast and southern part of the state.
“While traumatic on an individual level to these workers, the effect on the workforce training system will be catastrophic. Once destroyed, the workforce training system will be very difficult and expensive to rebuild,” the lawsuit states.
In program year 2016, Coastal Counties helped 564 workers obtain employment at an average annual wage of $29,456, according to the complaint. There are currently 908 workers enrolled in intensive services or training.
The Advertiser Democrat reported Oct. 5 that 14 employees who work with Western Maine Community Action to help the unemployed in Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties have received layoff notices.
Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor will likely lose 14 to 18 employees, representing a third of its staff and threatening the organization’s mission, said Michael Aube, the organization’s president.
It was too early to say Tuesday whether the attorney general’s office would defend the LePage administration in court; the lawsuit was “under review,” said spokesman Andrew Roth-Wells.
Asked for a response, Laura Hudson, a spokeswoman with the Maine Department of Labor, said, “We don’t comment on pending litigation.”