Editorial: Removing workforce barriers 

Maine’s workforce troubles began long before the pandemic. For a better part of the last decade, the workforce has shrunk year after year. Exacerbated by the pandemic, it has now reached a tipping point, with the results being seen across most industries in the state.  

Workers, especially those sidelined for months while the state shuttered what it deemed nonessential businesses, have been slow to return to their jobs. Some are unable to return to work because they are caring for children, or for loved ones with health challenges. Others, with more time to reflect, have reassessed their career choices or have declined to return to the jobs they once held. This is especially true for lower income sectors of the workforce.  

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine’s prime working-age population (25- to 64-year-olds) peaked at just under 745,000 in 2006. That number has steadily declined to just over 703,000 in 2019.  

Last week, the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal-leaning think tank, released a report titled “State of Working Maine” and in it detailed the impact of the pandemic on working Mainers. It found that low wages, lack of employee benefits and childcare, and fears of the pandemic have all contributed to the labor shortage. 

Last March, workers were divided between those who could work from home and those who could not. The first group packed up their computers, turned off their office lights, set up a workstation at home and continued their work. The latter group was labeled “essential workers” because they were, in fact, essential to keeping communities functioning.  

From gas station clerks to grocery store employees, these workers tended to be on the lower end of the wage scale. They are often women or people of color. In addition to low wages, these jobs often don’t offer the kind of benefits that are critical during a pandemic: health care coverage and paid sick leave. Can we blame these workers for not wanting to return to a job with low wages and few benefits? 

Those who could not work from home were twice as likely to contract the virus, according to the report. Two-thirds of Mainers who had to take time off to care for themselves or a family member with COVID-19 did so using unpaid leave. Another 8 percent received only partial pay while on leave.  

The report also cites the absence of affordable childcare as another barrier to workforce reentry – a barrier largely affecting women. Of the 25,000 Mainers out of the workforce because of a lack of childcare, women make up 22,000. 

There have also been large industry-specific sectors that have been hit hardest, particularly in restaurants and hospitality, which have been facing shortages for years. According to the report, “several signs point to poor working conditions and low wages as hindering hiring in Maine’s hospitality industry.”  

So what will it take to get Mainers back to work? Many believed that stopping the federally supplemented unemployment insurance would drive workers back, but economists say that isn’t the case.  

In June, MECEP surveyed unemployed Mainers receiving unemployment benefits, and would-be employers should take note. Survey respondents cited barriers to return to work including unavailability of opportunities matching their skillset (34 percent); COVID-19 health risks or concerns (31 percent); insufficient wages (29 percent); lack of benefits (15 percent); unpredictable schedules (13 percent); and shortage of long-term positions (11 percent). 

The report offers the following suggestions for policymakers:  

  • Implement a $15 minimum wage by 2025. According to MCECP, this increase would raise wages for 148,000 Maine workers. 
  • Create a statewide paid family leave program. 
  • Establish a widespread system of publicly subsidized childcare. 
  • Create “fair workweek” laws aimed at providing stability and predictability to workers – especially for those in lower wage-earning occupations.  

As Maine’s economy recovers from the changes the pandemic has caused, lawmakers must put the state’s people first. Policymakers can decide how best to craft laws to address this, but they must include help and support for working families and individuals to avoid a continued migration of youth and talent from the state.  

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