Some of the approximately 70 state workers who turned out for Sunday’s “Rolling Rally to Close the Pay Gap” at Mill Park in Augusta. Emily Duggan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The largest union representing state workers in Maine used the weekend before Labor Day to demonstrate for fair, livable wages as state employees enter their third month working under the terms of an expired contract.

About 70 state workers turned out for Sunday’s “Rolling Rally to Close the Pay Gap” at Mill Park in Augusta and declared the state should close the government employee pay gap and increase wages to attract candidates to fill more than 2,100 vacant state positions.

The demonstrators drove by the Blaine House, home of Gov. Janet Mills, and the Maine State House with their car horns beeping after the barbecue event at Mill Park.

Leaders of the Maine Service Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the state workers, shared experiences from their departments, which they described as understaffed and underpaid by an average of 15% compared to the private sector and other public jobs across New England.

A sign and an American flag at Sunday’s “Rolling Rally to Close the Pay Gap” at Mill Park in Augusta. Emily Duggan/Kennebec Journal

Kevin Russell, a state worker from Gardiner, addressed his fellow union members on the status of his office and how some clerks who have worked for the state for nearly 30 years are having to turn to public assistance — including food stamps and MaineCare — to live.

“Service workers that dedicated their lives to the public have to rely on public assistance to live,” Russell said. “What we want is the Maine state government and the people in charge to make sure people have a livable wage.”


Friday marked the start of the third month in which the state employees are working under the terms of their expired contract, which covers almost 13,0oo state employees.

This comes shortly after the Maine state government announced it had finished the 2023 fiscal year with a $141 million surplus, continuing years of strong revenues that have exceeded forecasts and prompted Republican lawmakers to renew calls for income tax cuts.

The money left over when the fiscal year ended June 30 filled the state’s budget stabilization account, also called the rainy day fund, with a record high $968.3 million, according to Mills. A new law included in the current two-year budget stipulates $65 million of the surplus be spent on affordable housing programs.

State reports from 2020 and as far back as 2009 show Maine workers are underpaid by an average of 15%, and one in six state government positions is vacant, amounting to the more than 2,100 unfilled jobs.

Dean Staffieri, president of the Maine Service Employees Association, Local 1989 of Service Employees International Union, addresses state workers during Sunday’s “Rolling Rally to Close the Pay Gap” at Mill Park in Augusta. Emily Duggan/Kennebec Journal

Local 1989 President Dean Staffieri said he expects the 15% average to grow three years after the 2020 study and due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legislative efforts died in the last session with bill LD 1854, which would have required the state allocate $1 million to complete the comprehensive review of Maine’s classification and compensation system for state government employees working in the executive branch. The review began in 2019.


Staffieri shared examples with the union members of state departments that are affected by staffing shortages. The common message throughout the examples: If the pay were better or more competitive, the departments would not have such trouble filling jobs.

Among the examples:

• A truck driver with the Maine Department of Transportation worked more than 34 hours plowing snow because the state “can’t hire drivers at a low wage.”

• A ferry operator worked 74 hours of overtime because he did not want to leave islanders without transportation, and coming up, he is scheduled to work 21 days without a day off.

• A 911 operator’s typical shift is 16 hours on and eight off, with a 15-hour shift the next day because of staffing issues.

“These are the folks who make sure help is there when we need it,” Staffieri said. “Don’t they deserve manageable work schedules? It’s only a matter of time — with those grueling schedules — that someone is going to make a mistake and someone is going to get hurt.”


And the low pay, starting at $15 to $16 an hour, is causing people to turn the other way when offered state jobs.

Tracy Bonnevie, who works for the state DOT in Wilton, said Poland Springs is hiring drivers at $24.50 an hour, and most of the employees who apply to the DOT work for two to three weeks before realizing they cannot afford to live on starting pay estimated at $17 to $18 an hour.

Bonnevie said Maine saw many road washouts this summer due to excessive rain, and the state DOT is responsible for making many of the repairs, which oftentimes does not happen as quickly as the public expects.

“It impacts services for one thing: We can’t get people in the door if we can’t pay them,” she said.

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