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 in the face of 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.
“What a problem to have,” said Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, who is also running for governor, in an interview after the meeting.
“It should be a fun one to solve.”
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.
“They may really be restoring their lives,” said Russell, but “the human resources person doesn’t get down to the details with charges, which may be dropped.”
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 was also debated at length.
“They’re not getting off welfare for $10 an hour,” said one woman, who did not give her name.
“And you know what, I don’t blame them. It’s a deficit for them,” she said, adding “We need to give them a purpose.”
Another participant chimed in: “You can’t afford child care making $8 or $10 an hour.”
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, which administers the program.
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 Mason, adding that under the current administration “we’ve taken 70,000 people off the SNAP roles 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 know 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 which 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, USDA, 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture, 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 is projected to 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.”
Computer literacy was also raised as an issue. But Gretchen Wilson, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview afterward, “That is easier to solve because there are resources.”
“I don’t see that as the big complaint,” Wilson said.
“I don’t hear technology as much as the real barriers of transportation, child care and housing.”
Betsy Lowe, manager of Garbo Lobster in Hancock, said data is one area that needs improvement.
“Data skills, even in the fishing industry, are useful,” she said.
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.”
Tupper said media reports shape public perception that the department has an extensive staff, but that many of those in turnout gear may not be trained for all positions, may be from neighboring towns, or may be constrained by other limitations.
“The newspaper gets the picture of everybody standing around,” said Tupper, “and that’s a misinterpreted perception that we have all these firefighters here.”
Tupper said that while the meeting was useful, his department faces other issues as well.
“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.”
Langley stressed that it was vital to bring taxpayers in on the conversation.
“We’ll have to have some very public conversations with our communities, because there probably will be a cost associated” with many of these solutions, he said.
“If we don’t think outside the box we’re going to be kind of stuck,” Langley said. “If we do think outside the box, I think we win.”