Prior to her State of the State address, Gov. Janet Mills unveiled her 10-year Strategic Economic Development Plan. Part of her goal is to attract 75,000 new workers to “add to Maine’s talent pool.”
I am a new worker who has moved to Maine. I came here eight months ago to become the Service-Learning and Volunteer Specialist at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
I appreciate Mills’ focus on creating a stronger economy, filled with new talent. However, her plan highlights recruiting new workers like me to this state without equipping employers with the salaries and benefit packages required to keep us here.
Having grown up in Northern Michigan, Maine looks and feels a lot like home. I’ve been trying to build more permanent roots after living in four states in the past half decade. The financial roadblocks are not easily overcome. Mills’ focus should be on retention of talent as well as recruitment — that includes ensuring Mainers get paid overtime for the work they do.
I entered higher education because I care about helping students thrive. Many jobs in the University of Maine system often require master’s degrees like mine. My colleagues and I are a skilled and passionate bunch. But the sad truth is, many university workers are forced to make sacrifices we shouldn’t have to make. I’ve watched many people exit this career because of long hours and low pay.
In higher education, staff often work 60 hour weeks without overtime. We don’t receive summers off. The time we spend working overtime takes away from the time we spend with our family, friends and community. I, personally, have sacrificed friends and family for this career. That’s why we deserve to be compensated. It’s no surprise that when employers have to pay for their workers’ time, they value it more and abuse it less.
I began my career in Westchester, New York, in 2015. I made $37,500 per year. I wasn’t eligible to be paid overtime by my employer. Due to New York’s high cost of living, I found myself one paycheck away from disaster. Forty-five percent of my income went to rent. I used the buffet at the university cafeteria as a personal food pantry. Financially, I was hanging on by a thread.
That year, the Obama administration fought to pass overtime protections for employees like me. It would have lifted the cap on overtime eligibility from $23,000 to $47,000. That meant either a $10,000 bump in our salaries or guaranteed paid overtime. There is no doubt that it would have changed my life.
Unfortunately, before it was set to go into effect, a federal judge in Texas blocked the overtime law. Two years ago, New York passed a similar bill anyway, boosting the quality of life for so many workers — including me and my former colleagues.
Maine’s current overtime salary threshold is $36,000. This prohibits most salaried workers from receiving overtime. With Maine’s cost of living rising, this is unacceptable. Housing in Portland is 25 percent higher than the national median. Including groceries, utilities, gas and whatever assortment of debts, and you have a recipe for thousands of Mainers barely earning enough to scrape by.
Currently, the Legislature in Augusta is considering a bill that incrementally raises the overtime threshold to $55,000 by 2022 and gives nearly 30,000 Mainers a raise. This would not only increase the quality of life for so many working people and their families, but it ensures that any influx of talented new Mainers could afford to put down roots.
I believe Mills is sincere in her desire for Maine to become an attractive state for new talent. In order to succeed, she needs to ensure they can afford to live here. We need to retain talented workers, not just attract them. A critical way to do that is by increasing the overtime threshold. This would guarantee that people are compensated fairly for the hours that they work.
Mainers go above and beyond in their work. If you work hard and put in more than 40 hours, you should be paid for that time.
Tyler Kalahar is service-learning and volunteer specialist at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. His views are his own and do not represent those of the University of Southern Maine or any group with which he is affiliated.