In this Jan. 29, 2021, file photo, a cutout of former President John F. Kennedy occupies a seat next to seventh-grader Reilly Sullivan and social studies teacher Logan Landry at the Bruce M. Whittier Middle School in Poland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The Maine House of Representatives has approved a measure requiring that all public school workers, from teacher aides to kitchen staff, be paid a minimum wage of $16 an hour. Under current law, the minimum salary for teachers is $40,000 a year.

In one of the closest votes of the session, the House gave initial approval by a margin of 73-71. Supporters argued that school workers are underpaid and deserve a minimum wage that will incentivize them to remain in those positions. Portland Democrat Mike Sylvester supported the bill.

“It’s time we reward those people, it’s time that we ensure that we get the best people in those positions, and that they stay and make a career,” Sylvester said.

Opponents called the mandates unaffordable for many school districts, particularly those in rural areas. They also questioned the fairness of giving one group a minimum wage for which many other workers in Maine don’t qualify.

“Can you imagine if you are in a small community, and your school staff is making $16 an hour, and the people in the community who have to pay that are not making that? Are we going to start picking out special groups for higher minimum wage?” said Rep. Richard Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro.

The state Senate has yet to consider the measure.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.