The State House in Augusta stands out against a blue sky on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Kyle Thomas of Manchester is a member of the Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989. He works for the State of Maine Postal Center.

As essential workers, our pay should reflect our essential work

I’m retiring in September after 44 years. You’d think I’d be thrilled. Actually, planning for retirement during the COVID-19 pandemic is bittersweet. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m also worried about the future of the public services my coworkers and I provide at the State of Maine Postal Center.

I started as a shoe worker at Hallowell Shoe, then as a line supervisor for Carleton Woolen Mills in Winthrop. Both are long gone. After over 20 years at jobs where I paid into Social Security, I joined state service in 1999 doing bridge maintenance for the Maine Department of Transportation before transferring to the Maine Bureau of Central Services. I’ve worked for the postal center for the last seven years.

My coworkers and I handle every piece of state government mail coming or going. We delivered COVID-related samples to and from the state health lab early on. Your absentee ballot passes through our hands. File for unemployment insurance? Any mail you send or receive about your claim goes through us. File state taxes by mail? We deliver them. Maine’s elections, unemployment insurance system and tax system wouldn’t function without my coworkers and me. Same goes for the services of every other state department.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Mills administration designated all state workers as essential workers, yet the state certainly hasn’t been treating us with the respect we’ve earned. State workers are underpaid by 15 percent, on average, compared to what workers earn for similar work throughout New England, even after adjusting for regional pay differences, according to the State of Maine Market Study Report published in November 2020. An earlier study in 2009 also showed state workers in Maine are substantially underpaid.

Over my 22 years as a state employee, I’ve seen state workers in all departments endure chronic understaffing and impossible workloads as one governor after another eliminated positions to balance budgets and fund their pet projects. This has consequences in terms of providing services to Maine people and recruiting and retaining qualified workers.

When the pandemic hit, Maine’s public health nursing workforce remained understaffed after largely being dismantled over the last decade. On top of that, most state workers don’t get Social Security in retirement even if they paid into it. The federal Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset penalize public workers.

As essential workers, we keep state government running, so it was disappointing last December when the Mills administration eliminated the $5-an-hour-hazard-pay agreement covering postal service workers and other essential workers. Such shortsightedness harms us and makes it harder to recruit and retain workers. Some of my coworkers quit over the elimination of hazard pay, since they could earn more in the private sector. Today, the Postal Center is hiring — at $14.41 an hour. These low wages must stop. Already hundreds of state employees make under $15.

We deserve to be paid fairly for our essential work. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan is providing over $1.6 billion in state and local aid to help Maine get through the pandemic. States can use this money to provide hazard pay for all essential workers, including the nurses, educators, and grocery, construction and state workers who supported us all, often at great risk to ourselves and our families. The Mills administration and the Maine Legislature should fund hazard pay for all of Maine’s essential workers, including essential state employees.

As an employer, the State of Maine must lead by example and start paying workers fairly for their labor and service to Maine people. The Mills administration and the Legislature must eliminate the pay gap for state employees and raise the state government minimum wage to $15 an hour. The status quo must change. Maine’s leaders must start making Maine workers and their families, not corporations and the wealthy, the priority.