While the recent passage of a baseline state budget prevented what would have been another ridiculous and unnecessary state government shutdown on July 1, real and meaningful action must be taken immediately in support of high-quality public services and the state workers who provide them.

Twice in the past week, my fellow state workers and I went to Augusta demanding both Gov. Mills and the Legislature end a chronic problem in Maine state government: the underpaying of state employees for their work.

On May 13, I joined fellow members of my union, the Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, in delivering to Gov. Mills a petition signed by over 2,200 state workers demanding an end to the longstanding and well-documented pay gap for state employees.

This took real courage from my coworkers; it’s always hard to challenge your boss, even when they aren’t the governor of Maine. But we needed to be heard. Not one but two studies now show state of Maine employees earn substantially less than their public and private sector counterparts throughout New England for the same work. The State of Maine Market Study Report dated Nov. 20, 2020, shows on average, state of Maine employees make 15% less than their counterparts throughout New England, even after adjusting for regional pay differences. A study from 2009 reached the same conclusion.

Workers like office assistants and office associates for the state of Maine earn 80% of what their peers make in Maine and throughout New England, according to the 2020 report. Office assistants and office associates are literally on the front lines providing public services to Maine people.

In the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, where I work, they’re reporting every day to offices like the Office of Child and Family Services and the Office of Family Independence and in all other state departments. They’re opening the mail, scanning documents in, answering questions, and escorting clients to visiting rooms. They’re the ones keeping state government running in this COVID-19 pandemic, yet the state is underpaying them in a big way.

It’s past time for the state of Maine to respect us, protect us and pay us.

To be sure, the pay gap is systemic throughout state government. Even at the top of the pay scale, accountants for the state of Maine make 20% to 33% less than their peers working elsewhere in the region. Chemists make 24% less. Civil engineers make 20% to 25% less. Maintenance mechanics make 31% less. Administrative workers make 20% to 35% less. Rehabilitation counselors make 25% less. Correctional officers make 16% less, and correctional captains make 26% less than their counterparts.

Right now, hundreds of state employees also continue to make under $15 an hour. Pay scales for the Executive Branch of Maine State Government are so low that recruitment and retention of state employees remains a serious problem.

While the low pay of the Executive Branch has been well-documented and widely acknowledged for years, every governor and Legislature has had an excuse for why they refuse to fix it. For Gov. Baldacci, it was the Great Recession. Gov. LePage wanted to give tax breaks to the wealthy.

While Gov. Mills didn’t create this problem, the excuses have run out. State revenue forecasts now exceed even pre-pandemic predictions — it’s time to invest in the services the people of Maine rely on and the people who make them possible. As one of Maine’s largest employers, state government must lead by example and be a part of raising standards for working people.

Unfortunately, for years it’s been doing the opposite.

State workers have provided essential services throughout this pandemic, often at great risk to ourselves and our families. It’s not enough to call essential workers heroes; our pay must reflect our essential work.

That’s why on my second recent trip to Augusta, May 19, my coworkers and I converged via a socially distanced car rally on the Augusta Civic Center, where the Legislature has been convening during the pandemic. We urged state legislators to make a priority of ending the state employee wage gap as they develop the proposed supplemental budget and vote on legislation.

For the sake of our clients, our communities and our families, I hope they heard us.

Allison Perkins of Cornville is vice president of the Maine Service Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, and a member of the union’s Executive Branch Negotiations Team. She works as an overpayment specialist for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in Skowhegan.

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