Maine Service Employees Association member Jonathan French addresses fellow state employees Sunday on the steps of the Statehouse during a rally in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — “Thank you’s are nice, but they don’t pay the bills,” said Dean Staffieri, president of the Maine Service Employees Association.

He was just one of dozens of participants who gathered under the hot afternoon sun in front of the Augusta Statehouse on Sunday, and one of the few speakers who addressed the crowd on their reasons for attending the event. Many state workers showed up in protest of the “low wages,” citing personal experience of having to choose between paying rent or paying their car bill in order to get to work.

Saffieri rallied for state workers’ starting wage to be increased to $15 an hour. The request comes just days before the expiration of the current union contract on June 30.

“Gov. (Janet) Mills says ‘thank you’ to the essential workers, but doesn’t think they are worth the investment,” he said at the event.

The Maine Service Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, represents more than 12,000 Maine workers. Included in Maine’s service workers are Maine Maritime Academy, the Maine Turnpike Association, the Maine’s People Alliance, along with workers from all three branches of the Maine state government. Other state workers are among those represented, too.

For the opinion section of the Kennebec Journal, Allison Perkins wrote, according to The State of Maine Market Study Report from November 2020, state of Maine employees make 15% less than counterparts throughout New England, even when factoring in regional pay differences.

Perkins, who works at the Department of Health and Human Services and is vice president of MSEA, said state workers are who have kept offices running through the coronavirus pandemic. Perkins said in the opinion piece the Maine Service Employee Association twice showed up in front of the Augusta Statehouse in May, “demanding” higher wages.

On the state of Maine website where state-level jobs are listed, most jobs’ starting pay is $12.16 an hour. The jobs range from assistant park rangers, to customer service representatives and office assistants. In the range of $14 an hour, the qualifying jobs are postal service workers and planning and research representatives.

Maine State Employees Association member Jonathan French addresses fellow state employees Sunday on the steps of the Statehouse with his son, William, during rally for the largest state union. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

In Staffieri’s speech, he said the state wants some workers to have a master’s degree, but people with those degrees “don’t want to work for that low of pay.” He mentioned under former Gov. Paul LePage, “so many” workers were lost that re-filling the positions has been difficult, especially at a wage, he said, the state should be “embarrassed of.”

The state is currently facing a chronic issue in trying to obtain — and retain — workers throughout the state.

To try and combat the problem, Mills is offering a $1,500 sign on bonus to whomever is hired in June or July and sticks with the job for eight weeks. Workers also have to be on unemployment for the week ending May 29 and accept a full-time job making less than $25 an hour. They are unable to collect unemployment during the period in which they start their new job.

According to the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information, the May 2021 unemployment rate across the state was 4.7%, falling just under the state average of 5.8%.

Sophia Warren, a newly elected independent to the Maine House of Representatives, was asked to be there by the union. She “stands in solidarity” with the state workers.

She said in the past year, there has been a new meaning to what essential workers are and how “important” they are within the community.

“The value of essential work is critical, and the essential workers know their value. And I want to stand with them to show the value and power to help drive the system towards change,” she said.

Kelsey Goldsmith, the director of communications for the Department of Administration and Financial Services, said the Mills’ administration increased pay for state workers by 3% in 2020 and again for certain state workers by 4% in 2021. Goldsmith added that in 2021, the “bottom salary step” for state workers was eliminated, “ensuring that no state worker will be hired at that rate moving forward.” The Kennebec Journal did not seek comment before the event.

Goldsmith said the Mills administration “deeply values state employees and works to ensure that it is able to offer rewarding careers in public service on behalf of the Maine people.”

“This administration has also enhanced employee benefits, including implementing additional paid leave to assist employees in navigating the impacts of the pandemic,” Goldsmith said. “Additionally, despite the impacts of the pandemic, the administration was able to preserve state worker’s jobs, avoiding layoffs, furloughs and or pay freezes.”

Ramona Welton, an Auditor II at the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said she is rallying for the members of MSEA who were unable to be at the rally because of the second jobs they have had to pick up to support themselves, or their families. She said workers for the state of Maine “should not have to rely on welfare” or stay up at night wondering what to pay.

Welton pointed out that during the coronavirus pandemic, the state workers were on the front lines, being thanked by Gov. Mills and helping the state run when everything thing else was closed.

“How can we invest in a community and generation when we aren’t invested in by the state?” she said.

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