Workforce roundtable ponders solutions



ELLSWORTH — Lawmakers, government officials and local business owners — those who were able to take a few hours off, anyway — convened at City Hall on Wednesday morning to discuss the ways employers are adapting to a tight labor market.

Increased programming at career and technical centers, altering work permit requirements for minors, transportation, housing, affordable child care and the opioid crisis were just some of the problems, and solutions, brought up at the event.

Recovery programs and opioid use were the topics of a lengthy discussion.

“We have this crisis” with substance use disorders, said Joanna Russell, executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board. “It can get messy.”

Russell suggested sober housing as one of the keys to getting participants back in the workforce. She also noted that screening of applicants by human resources staff may result in quick judgments regarding those with criminal backgrounds.

Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County) also suggested a “temp agency” style contract with sober living houses.

“Maybe they work for four days and then they get the wraparound services, where they get counseling one day per week,” Langley said.

“We can’t afford not to have them in the workforce.”

Public assistance also was debated at length.

“They’re not getting off welfare for $10 an hour,” said one woman, who did not give her name.

Several said they were accustomed to the refrain from potential employees of “I’m making too much money; I’m going to lose my benefits.”

An average of 54,033 Maine residents received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The state receives $78.1 million each year from the federal government to administer the program. States are allowed to keep unused money; Maine had over $155 million in unspent TANF funds as of last July, according to state budget data.

“Maine became one of the most generous states in the nation” in terms of welfare benefits, said Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, who is running for governor, in an interview after the meeting. Under the current administration “we’ve taken 70,000 people off the SNAP rolls, and we’ve started to chip down on welfare” too.

Mason is referring to reforms enacted by the LePage administration that attached asset limits and work, volunteer or job-training requirements for able-bodied adults to its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps.

The administration has credited these requirements with bringing public assistance recipients back into the workforce, citing a 2016 report from the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management that found that “able-bodied adults removed from food stamps earned 114 percent more in income a year later.”

The federal government paid $18.36 million in SNAP benefits to 171,064 Maine residents in the month of February, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. This is an average of $107 per person, or $3.56 per person per day.

More Mainers report being food insecure now than in 2011, according to the USDA, and Maine is the seventh-most food insecure state in the nation.

Mason questioned whether or not it was possible to bring all public assistance recipients back into the workforce.

“Those 35,000 men just don’t want to work,” Mason said. “It’s nothing more and nothing less than that.”

But some disagreed.

“It’s a very complex problem,” said Joe Wentworth of East Coast Seafood Group.

“In my experience, most people don’t just want to collect welfare,” said Wentworth, adding “even if we put 35,000 people to work tomorrow, we’ll still be short.”

Several participants suggested that employers needed to set an example of “work ethics” for younger workers who may not be getting such lessons at home. Work ethic, said one woman, “sets in in the blueberry fields” and when employees see their bosses “washing dishes until midnight.”

Participants discussed immigration and housing as ways to encourage workers to come to the state. Mason said that many businesses are paying “out-of-market salaries” and that the state “needs to do a better job of advertising ourselves.”

Despite an increase in the state’s minimum wage this year, Maine ranks among the bottom for average salary adjusted for cost of living, 39th out of 50 states (and Washington, D.C.), according to an analysis by Rasmussen College. (Without accounting for cost of living, the state climbs to 27th.)

Wentworth said he felt there was not enough discussion of declining population and birthrates and the “root causes” of the problem.

(The population of Hancock County will decrease 3.6 percent by 2034, according to state projections.)

“Maine is getting older,” said Wentworth, “but we haven’t really addressed the root causes as to why,” adding he felt as though the meeting did not address “how do we actually get people to come here.”

Wentworth said his company employs a number of Puerto Rican residents, many of whom “would stay here year-round if they could and contribute to the economy, but they can’t get their families here” because of difficulty finding housing.

Bolstering career and technical education was a popular idea. The Hancock County Technical Center, said Langley, is “in dire need of being torn down, replaced and a new one built.” He added that “about 90 percent of kids who go through a career and technical education program stay within 50 miles of where they went to school.”

Business owners weren’t the only ones on hand. Ellsworth Fire Department Chief Richard Tupper also attended the meeting. Tupper said he has been struggling with staffing issues for years.

“I don’t want to start a mass panic,” said Tupper in an interview after, “but I think the citizens, the business community, they have the right to realize that we’re constrained as much as they are.”

“Businesses talk about closing for a day, or for lunch,” Tupper said. “I can’t say that we’re going to close on Monday and Tuesday or overnight.”

 

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Digital Media Strategist
Kate is the paper's Digital Media Strategist, responsible for all things social, and the occasional story too! She's a former reporter for the paper and can be reached at: [email protected]

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