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Maine State Workers Decry High Turnover, Shrinking Compensation
03/05/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

State workers are calling on Maine Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett to address what they say is the growing problem of employee recruitment and retention in state government. The union representing workers cites low wages and eroding pensions as reasons for the problem - as they explained to reporters today at a State House press conference. Susan Sharon reports.

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Maine State Workers Decry High Turnover, Shrinking Listen
 Duration:
3:25

State employees have been working without a contract for more than a year and a half.  Many haven't had a raise in four years.  Others have seen their pensions cut back, and merit and longevity pay frozen.  They're paying more for health care and working longer hours. 

And Dawn Kliphan, a member of the Maine State Employees Association, says she's looking at another pay cut.  She says she took a vacation day to attend the news conference, sponsored by her union.

"Gov. LePage in his proposed state budget has called for cutting my pay $24 a paycheck," she said. "I'm living on a shoestring budget, so $24 dollars - I'm not sure how much it means to all of you - but it means a lot to me.  And that is really going to matter after four years without a raise."

In addition, Kliphan says she's worked in state government for 20 years.  That means she should have received longevity compensation under a negotiated agreement.  But that payment was frozen in the current two-year budget. 

And members of the MSEA say the LePage administration is refusing to negotiate wages with them.  A spokesperson for the governor did not return a telephone call for this story.  And Commissioner Millett's office said he was unavailable. 

But in a written statement Millett points out that the freeze on merit and longevity pay was first initiated during the Baldacci administration.  And as a result, the state of Maine is projected to save $12 million over the course of the next biennium.

"While is it true that the freeze on workers' pay makes it more difficult to recruit potential employees," Millett said, "the governor is faced with a challenge in these times of diminished revenues - continue to provide services to Maine’s most vulnerable populations or provide pay raises to employees."

"We've heard alot of talk lately about the importance of paying debts.  Well, what about the state of Maine's debt to the people who do the public's work and keep our communities strong?" said Ginette Rivard, president of the MSEA.  She says failure to address the situation will have implications for more than just state workers.

MSEA President Ginette Rivard says it's time for the administration to respond to state workers. "If this continues, the state of Maine is not going to be able to continue to meet its obligations to the public," she said. "And that's a serious consideration for us."

Rivard couldn't provide specifics about the number of jobs going unfilled.  But, anecdotally, workers say they are seeing high turnover in some departments and the disappearance of more experienced state workers. 

For example, Jim Betts is a claims adjudicator for the Bureau of Unemployment, where he says supervisors are in a perpetual process of interviews, hiring and training because they can't retain staff. 

"When I started there 11 years ago, most of the staff had 20-plus years of experience," Betts said. "Now, I am one of the most senior ones with 11 and most of my co-workers are now with only at a couple of years of experience."

Betts, who also used a vacation day to appear at the news conference, says the result is that claims for unemployment insurance that used to be completed in a couple of weeks are now taking two or three times longer. 

He joined other members of the union in calling on the state of Maine to restore merit and longevity pay to about 9,000 workers, fully funding the State Employee Health plan and giving them a raise. 

It's unclear how much it would cost to accomplish those things.  But Rivard says she'd be happy to work with Commissioner Millett and the Appropriations Committee to find out.

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