BAR HARBOR — The Jackson Laboratory has announced a major adjustment in its wage scales for nearly 800 employees – approximately 43 percent of its workforce.
With the exception of employees in their first six months of training, the lowest wage for full-time workers will now be $15 per hour. The total increase in payroll for workers both in Maine and at the lab’s facility in Sacramento, Calif., is expected to be $3.8 million annually, lab officials said.
Affected employees are frontline staff working in animal care and positions supporting the laboratory’s research, administration and operations.
The average starting salary in many of the affected jobs had been between $10 and $11 per hour, lab Chief Operating Officer Charles Hewett said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
In an online blog post announcing the increase early Tuesday, Hewett said, the institution “has long recognized that employees are its greatest asset and is proud to be a leader in recognizing and rewarding hourly workers, a statement said.
“This increase in wage scales rewards their improved productivity and increased contribution to the laboratory’s success. It reflects [the lab’s] understanding of the importance of these roles and both the board’s and management’s on-going commitment to reward the entire laboratory workforce fairly and appropriately.”
Locally, Hewett said, affected employees come from nearly 60 towns around Eastern Maine and Waldo County. The extra money in that many paychecks will aid small businesses around the region, he added. “Most of this is income that will be spent here,” he said.
He continued that he understood concerns from smaller businesses, particularly in Hancock County, that paying wages higher than many other employers might exacerbate problems those businesses may have in finding and retaining entry-level workers. “These positions at the lab are fairly specialized jobs. I don’t think it is going to have a big impact on the availability of hourly workers,” he said.
“If you were announcing that a new employer was locating here and bringing a $3.8 million annual payroll, everyone would be very excited, he said.
According to Kelly Cochran, president of the Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce, the higher wages for the lab, which already is at work converting the former Lowes in Ellsworth into the institution’s main research mouse production facility, will have an impact on the local employment picture.
“I am grateful that the lab is making such a commitment to their employees; my friends and neighbors,” she said.
“Seeing the starting wages posted in windows and on marquees this spring, and hearing of short staffing issues across industries has been concerning. It is hard to think about strategic planning and growth within a business when you are not sure if you have enough people to open in the morning.”
“I am very pleased with the great commitment the lab is making to their employees and our community,” she continued. “But at the same time, I have a bit of a pit in my stomach thinking of some of the folks who are scrambling to make ends meet right now may view an announcement like this and thinking they might as well throw their hands up. I believe there are ways to stay competitive.”
According to Martha Searchfield, CEO of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, the difficulty in finding employees locally, coupled with uncertainty with a November referendum seeking to raise the minimum wage in Maine, make this a time of concern for many small business owners. She said no survey has been done but estimated the average starting wage on Mount Desert Island at around $13 per hour. “Retention of year-round employees here has been an issue even before the lab’s announcement,” she said. “I think it’s great that the lab is doing this, but for many of our members struggling to find workers, it is a concern.”
University of Maine economist Philip Trostel said Wednesday that raising the starting wage undoubtedly will give the lab “the pick of the litter” when it comes to attracting workers. “It has always been a pretty good place to work,” he said, adding that most area businesses that pay less already have been functioning at a competitive disadvantage. “I’m not sure it will have a major effect,” he said.
During the recent recession, it was workers at the lowest end of the wage scale that were hit the hardest, Trostel explained. More money in people’s pockets should “improve the economic prospects of the region.”
“Overall, upward pressure on wages should be seen as a positive,” Trostel said. “It means the economy is doing well.”
Hewett said that attention by both managers and hourly workers on improving and streamlining protocols, processes and procedures, “along with a great deal of hard work and sustained effort,” led to improved productivity and that the lab wanted to reward that.
According to Hewett’s blog post, the lab also anticipates that the increase in its wage scales will help ensure employee retention as well as assist in attracting and hiring committed new employees as the laboratory grows and prospers in Maine, Connecticut and California.
Due to its growth, The Jackson Laboratory has more than 250 open positions across its campuses in those three states.
This story was updated Wednesday, July 13 at 11:00 a.m.