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Income of wealthiest in Maine nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020, report shows

Thu, 12/02/2021 - 09:58

The wealth of the 30 highest income earners in Maine nearly doubled from tax year 2019 to tax year 2020, a recent report from the Maine Revenue Services Office of Tax Policy shows. 

The report, which helped inform a December 2021 revenue forecast that projected a large surplus for Maine over fiscal years 2022 and 2023, found that “In tax year 2020, the income tax liability of the top 30 taxpayers ($68.4 million) is 94% higher than top 30 in 2019 ($35.2 million).” Tax liability refers to the amount of money owed in taxes.  

Sarah Austin, director of policy and research at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said because there weren’t any big changes to the tax code between those two years, that increase in liability for the wealthiest 30 earners in 2020 over 2019 “is a reflection of how much income is being reported by the richest people in the state.” 

Austin said assuming that the 30 wealthiest filers in Maine paid about 7% in state income tax, the average income of those in that cohort went from about $16.7 million in 2019 to about $32.5 million in 2020, although she added that the richest 30 filers in Maine in 2019 weren’t necessarily the same people as the richest 30 in 2020. 

“It’s enormous, it’s a huge jump,” Austin said of that rise in income. 

Austin said one factor that likely contributed to the increase was the strength of the stock market and corporate profits in 2020. Because the richest Americans own the vast majority of U.S. stocks, they tend to benefit the most when the market goes up, she said. 

The increase in income for the state’s wealthiest comes as a pandemic that has laid bare the flaws in the state’s social safety net and exposed the vulnerability of many Maine workers continues to rage. During the crisis, one in four Maine adults have reported not being able to afford weekly household expenses. In addition, job losses from the pandemic have been particularly concentrated among Maine’s lowest wage earners. And around the state, a projected 13.5% of people could face food insecurity issues. 

Nationally, a similar picture has emerged. Amid the crisis in 2020, the richest 400 Americans saw their wealth rise 40%, adding $4.5 trillion in riches. In contrast, nearly 20 million adults live in households without enough to eat, according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and 12 million renters are behind on housing payments. Additionally, a year after the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S., a Pew Research Center study found that about four in ten Americans were struggling financially. 

The yawning disparity between the rich and the rest of Americans has promoted renewed calls for tax fairness policies that ensure the wealthiest pay their share.

In Maine, though, such efforts have faced roadblocks. During former Gov. Paul LePage’s time in office, Maine passed tax cuts that favored the wealthy and corporations. And during the legislative session earlier this year, a litany of tax fairness proposals were voted down. The only such measure lawmakers did manage to pass — a bill that would have made Maine’s real estate transfer tax more progressive, implementing higher rates on those with more wealth — was subsequently vetoed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done on the policy level to make sure we are leveling the playing field here and making sure that everyone is able to come back from the pandemic stronger and [that there is] not just huge power and wealth accumulation for folks at the top,” Austin said. 

At the national level, the Build Back Better bill — which passed the House in November and is currently being considered in the Senate — is projected to raise average taxes for people who make over $1 million by 3.2%. That bill would strengthen the social safety net in the U.S., investing in child and health care, reductions to the cost of prescription drugs and fighting climate change, among other policies. 

Austin said the wealth growth of top income earners shows that needed social service programs like those in Build Back Better can be funded by increasing taxes on the rich. 

“This is where to go for raising revenues ethically and in a way that can actually afford the investments that we need to make,” she said. 

Photo: Mainers rally in Augusta in 2019 for a fair tax code | Beacon

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Maine GOP’s proposed 2022 platform targets LGBTQ, abortion, labor rights

Tue, 11/23/2021 - 08:48

In its proposed 2022 platform, the Maine Republican Party expresses support for policies that would curb access to abortion, restrict the rights of transgender athletes to compete in accordance with their gender identity, and undermine collective bargaining in the state, among other stances.   

The party’s initial pitch for its platform, which was put forward by the group’s Standing Resolutions Committee at the end of September, will be considered for approval at the 2022 Maine Republican Party Convention in late April. The document is not final, with the Maine GOP including a link on its website for members of the party to submit proposed amendments. 

But in its current form, the platform shows the direction the party may be heading in the lead-up to a pivotal 2022 election that will likely feature former Republican Gov. Paul LePage challenging Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills. 

“The proposed @mainegop platform is out. Not surprisingly, it’s anti-LGBTQ, anti-worker & anti-abortion,” Andy O’Brien, communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, said on Twitter. 

Demi Kouzounas, chair of the Maine Republican Party, did not respond to a request for comment from Beacon about the party platform. 

Platform features multiple anti-LGBTQ policies 

In the platform, the Maine GOP advocates for defining marriage “as the union of one man and one woman,” a position that University of Maine political science professor Amy Fried noted on Twitter is out of step with most voters.

“Nine years after Mainers voted for marriage equality, the proposed @mainegop platform still opposes it,” Fried said, referring to an approved 2012 ballot initiative.

Opposing marriage equality isn’t the only anti-LGBTQ plank the Maine GOP’s platform includes, with the party also stating its support for a policy at public education institutions that would essentially bar transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports. 

That policy plank mirrors two failed bills pushed by Republican lawmakers during this year’s session, part of a  national trend of similar legislation. 

As Beacon previously reported, there is no evidence that letting transgender girls participate in school sports has any negative impact on other participants. And a report released earlier this year by the Center for American Progress found that including trans kids in sports is massively beneficial to their well being and that excluding them can do substantial harm.

In its platform proposal, the Maine GOP also wades into the debate around school politics when it writes that the party opposes “any policy that promotes agendas which undermine individual accountability in favor of a focus on class, gender or race (eg: CRT).”   

CRT refers to “critical race theory.” As with the topic of transgender kids playing sports in accordance with their gender identity, Republicans around the country have made opposing critical race theory — an academic term that experts argue simply refers to studying how racial disparities are prevelant in U.S. history and society — a centerpiece of their political agenda when it comes to schools. 

In Maine, state Rep. Meldon Carmichael (R-Greenbush) introduced a bill in this year’s legislative session aimed at barring critical race theory in schools despite the Maine Department of Education stating that CRT is not a subject of study in the curriculum. Carmichael’s bill was ultimately defeated. 

Along with opposing critical race theory, the party takes a hardline stance on immigration in its platform plan, rejecting “all categories of amnesty” for undocumented individuals, whom the document refers to as “illegal aliens.” 

Mainers as a whole favor a different approach, however, with a poll earlier this year showing that over two-thirds of voters in the state support a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. 

Abortion and voting rights 

In the platform, the Maine GOP states that it supports “prohibiting the use of state funds for abortions or activities that run counter to the sanctity of human life.” 

That stance puts the Maine Republican Party at odds with many voters, as a strong majority of people in the state support abortion rights. Still, the prevailing pro-choice sentiment in Maine didn’t stop state Republican legislators from putting forward what one state health care group called an “unprecedented” number of anti-choice bills during the legislative session earlier this year. Those bills failed to pass in a legislature controlled by Democrats. 

Abortion rights have increasingly come under attack in states around the country, with advocates decrying a new draconian law in Texas and warning that a 6-3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court may undermine or strike down Roe v. Wade

Another area in which the GOP is staking out a position opposed by a majority of Mainers is ranked-choice voting, which the party platform says should be repealed. However, in recent statewide elections on the issue, Mainers have twice passed ranked-choice voting initiatives. 

The party also backs more restrictive election rules, such as voter ID laws, in its platform. However, critics of such laws — which have been proposed by Republicans around the country — say they often make it more difficult for low-income people, people of color, older individuals and those with disabilities in particular to cast a ballot and are part of an effort to roll back advances made on voting rights over the years. 

Labor rights 

In its platform, the Maine GOP states that it supports “enacting ‘Right to Work’ laws to better stimulate economic growth.”  

A bill defeated in the legislature earlier this year, LD 97, would have implemented such a law in Maine by prohibiting people from being required to join a labor union or pay dues as a condition of employment. 

However, labor groups argue such policy proposals are deceptive. 

“Backers of right to work laws claim that these laws protect workers against being forced to join a union. The reality is that federal law already makes it illegal to force someone to join a union,” the AFL-CIO writes

“The real purpose of right to work laws is to tilt the balance toward big corporations and further rig the system at the expense of working families,” the group continues. “These laws make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.”

Photo: Former Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Republican Party chair Demi Kouzounas | Maine Republican Party via Facebook 

Categories: Beacon tags

Bates’ latest union-busting hire has long record of being ‘not neutral’

Mon, 11/22/2021 - 09:08

Bates College administration continues to dig in against the ongoing staff unionization effort. In recent weeks, the school has brought in a series of anti-union consultants, the latest hire a high-priced Boston lawyer who has drawn the ire of Massachusetts labor advocates and who once admitted in a meeting with workers attempting to organize that she is “not neutral.”

The administration has been enlisting consultants to host meetings for staff since adjunct faculty and non-managerial staff announced in October that they had filed for a union election. The meetings are presented as unbiased informational forums about the pros and cons of unions.

Beacon has learned that some of those meetings are now being led by labor attorney Katie Lev, who runs her own so-called “union avoidance” consulting firm, Lev Labor LLC.

The Bates meetings have so far been voluntary, unlike what are often called captive audience meetings. Routine for decades, such meetings are tactics used by employers to erode possible union support by requiring workers to attend anti-union briefings. While the Bates meetings aren’t compulsory, union supporters at the school say Lev is far from a neutral source of information.  

Picture of labor attorney Katie Lev from her profile at Boston College where she is adjunct faculty in employment law.

‘Make no mistake about it. I am biased.’

Huffpost reported that during a 2016 union drive by journalists at the subscription legal news service Law360, Lev was recorded telling staff during a meeting, “Make no mistake about it. I am biased. I am not neutral.”

In the recording, Lev insisted that she was however “neutral” in her role as a board member of the Commonwealth Employee Relations Board, a Massachusetts state agency that adjudicates disputes involving the state’s public sector unions. 

Lev was appointed to the board in 2015 by Massachusetts’ Republican governor, Charlie Baker. In 2018, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Service Employees International Union Local 509 joined together to call on Baker to remove Lev from the board, saying she could not be a neutral arbitrator while also running a union-avoidance firm. 

“A zebra’s stripes don’t change,” Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman wrote in a letter to Baker.

The following year, the unions picketed Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, Massachusetts after 20 health workers were fired for what labor leaders alleged was retaliation for attempting to unionize. The labor leaders called on the health center to cancel its contract with Lev and another anti-union consultant.

Lev is the latest anti-union consultant that Bates has brought in since staff announced their plan last month to join the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989, which also represents Beacon staff. Adjunct instructors, dining and facilities workers and other professional staff are attempting to organize the college wall-to-wall by forming the Bates Educators and Staff Organization, citing low pay, poor working conditions and declining staff retention.

As Beacon previously reported, the administration has also consulted with Nicholas DiGiovanni, a Boston-based employment lawyer with experience countering higher education union drives, and Carol Holland, a human resource consultant with experience “assessing and mitigating labor risk.”

Staff have confirmed that, as of Nov. 19, Holland continues to lead so-called informational meetings. The administration would not confirm whether they are still retaining DiGiovanni’s services or if they were concerned about Lev’s neutrality.

A look inside an anti-union meeting

Prior to her anti-union consulting career, Lev was the senior director of labor relations for CVS Pharmacy. She has since been contracted by several employers through the Labor Relations Institute, a leading anti-union consulting firm. According to a 2019 disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor, Walgreens paid Lev a day rate of $2,500 for her services.

According to Bates staff, Lev has led four meetings with workers so far, leading students who support the union to raise alarm at how much the administration may be spending on consultants.

“I think students are angry, asking, ‘Why are our tuition dollars getting put to work for these really expensive anti-union consultants in a way that disagrees with the mission of the college?’” said Wilder Geier, a student organizer rallying support for the union. 

Beacon obtained a recording of one of the meetings facilitated by Lev on Nov. 5.  During a question and answer session with professional staff, Lev does not tell employees how to vote, but delves deep into SEIU bylaws to paint a negative picture of the union. 

Union supporters that shared the recording of the meeting disagreed with several of the answers Lev gave to staff.

In the recording, Lev said that she had never seen “open shop” SEIU unions in the private sector, meaning a union where membership is not a condition for being hired or for continued employment. 

“I will say in my 20 years of experience, I have never seen an SEIU contract that doesn’t require employees to pay dues as a condition of employment where that is lawful,” she said, referring to states like Maine without so-called “right-to-work” laws that essentially require that every unionized workplace be an open shop.

“There’s a lot of misinformation going around, like, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry, you don’t have to pay dues,’” she told Bates staff. “I would get that in writing from someone telling you that. Get their commitment that they’ll pay [your dues] for you. Otherwise, it’s likely to be a condition of employment.”

Union supporters disputed that claim, citing Maine organizations like Preble Street and the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) which have open-shop unions.

Consultant meetings are intended to intimidate workers, says longtime union rep

Todd Ricker is the lead labor representative with the Maine State Nurses Association. Before that, he had 20-year career as a union organizer. He explained that there are a number of common tactics consultants like Lev use in these meetings.

A majority of nurses at Maine Medical Center voted last April to join the Maine State Nurses Association after facing an aggressive anti-union campaign that involved captive audience meetings. The campaign was orchestrated by the firm Reliant Labor Consultants. A U.S. Labor Department disclosure shows that Lev worked with Reliant in 2020.

One tactic Ricker has seen by consultants is compelling undecided workers to vote in the union election.

Lev told Bates employees at the recorded meeting, “If you have one takeaway from this session today, it is really important to cast your vote for or against … If you’re not sure, I would encourage you to ask more questions, but every single person should be voting.”

Ricker explained, “They know that there will be the highest turnout of ‘no’ votes if everybody votes, so that’s their get-out-the-vote strategy.” 

He said that another common tactic is convincing workers that management has heard their concerns and a union vote can be deferred.

“If Bates staff haven’t heard it already, next they’ll say, ‘Give us another chance. Give us a year. We can just go back to being a happy family and work out our problems with each other without these outside third parties getting involved,’” Ricker said. “The whole point is to undercut somebody’s instincts to vote on their own behalf, to vote to have a real voice at work.”

Ricker further warned against fact checking anti-union consultants at the expense of understanding the power dynamics in play during in union elections. 

“The most important thing about captive audience meetings is that the employer can force employees into these meetings, to make it clear that the people who sign their paychecks are against them having a union. Just the fact that they exist is more important than what any union busters says or doesn’t say. It makes very clear the imbalance of power,” he said. 

He added, “Yes. They want to give people misinformation. Yes. They want to confuse people. But a lot of times, people on the pro-union side want to seize on what’s true and what’s not true. The point is that the meetings happen.”

Top photo: Bates College campus | David Gale

Categories: Beacon tags

Stage workers picket Portland city-owned Merrill Auditorium for fair contract

Fri, 11/19/2021 - 07:46

Almost 100 people gathered at Portland City Hall Thursday night to picket with members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union, demanding the city-owned Merrill Auditorium rejoin contract negotiations with the stage workers. 

The picket was led by IATSE Local 114, which has served the state of Maine since 1904. They represent about 85 workers including stagehands, loaders, forklift operators, carpenters, dressers, audio specialists, electricians and wardrobe assistants that service a variety of productions from ballets to political campaigns. 

“This is strictly an informational picket. We have a sold out show in the auditorium that we think we should be inside of, and we’re outdoors,” said Douglas Born, Local 114 Business Agent. “All we’re going to do is make our presence known, let them know we’re here. We want shows to happen here, we want shows to be successful here. That’s how we make our living.”

“So many people come to these shows, but very few know what we do,” Steve Rice, President of Local 114, added. “We are the hands behind entertainment. We roll out the cables, take the stuff off the trucks… We’re the folks that help to put on the shows that you enjoy. We’ve been taking care of this building for many years and we’d like to do that with something more than is in these offers right now.”

Despite IATSE’s long-standing relationship with the city, it was recently announced that stage labor for Merrill will now go through a competitive bidding process.

“As a result of the pandemic and some questions regarding a failure to fill a labor call for a recent performance, several months ago, City Manager Jon Jennings and City staff discussed the contract and the possibility of using the request for proposals process for the service of stage labor,” Portland city spokesperson Jessica Grondin told Bangor Daily News Wednesday.

Consequently, Production Services of Maine (PSM), a non-union concert labor company, working Thursday night’s Chelsea Handler show. 

Photo: Members of IATSE Local 114 projected “Stop Union Busting” on Portland City Hall. | Nathan Bernard, Beacon

“We have been the de facto sole provider of stage labor at Merrill since it opened in 1997,” Born said. “And our members provided labor at the old City Hall auditorium for decades before that. We finally got the city to put it in writing several years ago to avoid situations just like this one, but suddenly the city wants to ignore that history and our continuing contribution to its operation.”

Working with PSM is a change of course for the city of Portland and Merrill Auditorium. PSM is owned by Alex Gray, a concert promoter who runs the group’s parent company Waterfront Concerts. After public outcry in 2018, the city council unanimously voted to stop working with Gray and terminate their existing contracts with his companies after he pled guilty to domestic abuse. One year later, Gray’s domestic violence charges were dismissed by the district attorney.

Portland city councilors did not respond to Beacon’s request for comment regarding the contract dispute and new business relationship with Gray.

“I’d stress that our gripe here is with the city. Alex Gray may not be a sympathetic character for a number of reasons, but our gripe is with the city,” Born said. “Not with Alex Gray or his people.” 

Representatives from the pipefitters, teamsters and nurses unions were also present to support IATSE.

“Doug Born has shown up everybody, all the working class causes, all the union causes. So I’m here for Doug,” Brian Clark, a member of the local 716 pipefitter and plumbers union, said. “And for all my brothers and sisters that are working in labor. Working class power.”

Once doors opened for the show, picketers lined the street across from Merrill Auditorium and handed out informational flyers on the union and their contract dispute with the city. A stage-light was used to shine a “Stop Union Busting” signal on the auditorium’s wall.

“Our mere presence is what we needed the city to see tonight. That we were able to turn out this number of people, this many people, tells them something,” Born said. “And it gives us a lot of juice when we finally go back and negotiate. They don’t want to deal with this again.”

Photo: Members of IATSE Local 114 and supporters picketed outside Portland Merrill Auditorium on Nov. 18, 2021 after the city ended its longstanding contract with the union. | Nathan Bernard, Beacon

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Opinion: A municipal manifesto for Maine

Wed, 11/17/2021 - 15:07

Last week, I got a call from intrepid Beacon reporter Dan Neumann asking for comment on a piece he was writing about Portland flipping it’s city council majority from conservative to progressive.

After giving him a few platitudes about the tidal wave (progressives have won 17 of 20 municipal races for council, school board, and Charter Commission since 2019, plus five referenda), he asked, “So what should progressives do now? What policies do you hope to see implemented?”

It was a great question. And one, honestly, I answered inadequately due to having been so focused on winning elections.

So, for Mr. Neumann, and all Beacon readers, here are my top ten initiatives for cities and towns across Maine. Whether you have a progressive majority now, or you are fighting to build one, these policies will help create economic and social equity, and will help you win elections.

  1. Pass rent control. This is probably the most important step you can take to keep your town affordable. Yes, build housing, rezone for better density, implement inclusionary zoning, but first, stop the rent gouging. (And, in Portland, where we already have it, enforce it!)
  2. Eliminate the sub-minimum wage. The minimum wage is going up to $12.75 in January (thanks to the Maine People’s Alliance), and $13 in Portland (thanks to People First Portland) and while any/all communities should push that higher, the greater inequity we have now is that employers in our tourist industry only have to pay their workers half what everyone else must pay. Make every employer pay the same, and let 100% of tips benefit the worker.
  3. Regulate Airbnb. Whether it is in your town now, or coming soon, crack down. We were too slow in Portland and it has taken close to 3% of our long-term rental housing. Limit it to owner-occupied only and jack up the registration fee.
  4. Tax the rich. It is a misnomer that municipalities can’t tax based on ability to pay. Simply raise your mil rate and use the new taxes you collect to send a rebate to your working class residents. The businesses of your town, and your wealthy residents will all pay more, while the rest pay less.
  5. Sanctuary cities. No one in your city should have to fear that Big Brother will check their papers simply for walking down the street, asking for food, or for calling the fire department. Pass a law in your town making that illegal.
  6. Protect freelance workers. As the gig economy grows, more and more workers are freelancing. Put protections in place around wage theft, working conditions, and base pay.
  7. Create a Department of Labor. The workers of your city are the most important drivers of your economy. Make sure they are protected by creating a local Department of Labor they can call when an employer violates safety, underpays, or tries to block a union, etc.
  8. Build a homeless shelter (or two). When someone in your community falls into homelessness, forcing them to move to a new town to gain shelter adds trauma. Every major town in Maine should have an emergency shelter.
  9. Create a municipal COU. Over 2,000 municipalities across the U.S. have consumer-owned utilities (including dozens in Maine) and their customers see lower rates and less environmental impact. See Kennebunk Light & Power for a model.
  10. Get rid of your city manager. With all due respect to city managers across the state, it just isn’t democratic to have your chief executive accountable to so few people. After that, pass a clean elections program.

Most importantly, remember: You are not merely reactionary bodies. Greg Kesich, Press Herald editorial page editor, could not have been more wrong when he recently wrote, “so little of what goes on in city government is ideological,” since all you do is “provide services.”

In truth, municipal officials have one of the most important roles in proactively improving the lives of Maine residents. As someone who has worked in Congress, served in Augusta, and spent four years as Mayor of Maine’s largest city, I have seen firsthand that the municipal level is where you can do the most good and achieve it the most quickly.

For more info on some of these policies, and all kinds of other good ideas, go to Local Progress. Or reach out directly. I’m happy to help.

Photo: Portland skyline. | Corey Templeton

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Maine group pushes forward in bid to put universal health care on Nov. 2022 ballot

Wed, 11/17/2021 - 08:44

A group spearheading a proposed referendum that would require the Maine Legislature to establish a universal, publicly-funded health care system is in a final sprint to gather enough signatures to put the issue on the state’s November 2022 ballot.

The proposed ballot initiative, which has been put forward by Maine Health Care Action, would direct state lawmakers to “develop legislation to establish a system of universal health care coverage in the State,” calling for “the joint standing committee to report out a bill to the Legislature to implement, by 2024, its proposal.” 

The deadline to gather the signatures for the referendum to appear on the November 2022 ballot is the end of January. The campaign must collect at least 63,067 valid signatures by then. 

Abbie Ryder, campaign manager for Maine Health Care Action, said Friday that the group had collected about 40,000 signatures for the initiative. Ryder acknowledged that the organization has many signatures still to gather but said she’s heartened by the level of support the referendum proposal has received from voters the group has talked with so far. 

“What happens is once this petition gets in front of voters, they’re very eager to sign,” she said. “We haven’t had much pushback whatsoever. It’s just a matter of getting it in front of the voters.” 

Ryder said Maine Health Care Action has volunteers around the state gathering signatures. She added that the organization will be attending various rallies and festivals to collect support and will have a presence at post offices. The group is also opening its office in South Portland for those who want to come to them. That office is located at 96 Ocean Street Unit 1. Maine Health Care Action can also direct volunteers to meet people who want to sign, Ryder said. 

The ongoing COVID pandemic is a significant reason why the effort to get universal health care on the November 2022 ballot is likely to go down to the wire, with Ryder noting the crisis has made signature-gathering much more difficult. Still, despite that challenge, she said Maine Health Care Action will be “continuing to push forward” to try to meet the January deadline. 

Volunteers with Maine Health Care Action via Twitter

Ryder added that the fallout from the pandemic has demonstrated exactly why Maine needs a universal health care system in which everyone is guaranteed coverage. She argued that the current health care system — in which 46 million Americans are unable to pay for necessary health care services and about one in 12 Mainers go without health insurance — is fundamentally broken. 

“Every year plans are gutted, they’re more expensive, and they’re just going to continue to do that,” Ryder said. “It’s already an unaffordable system, so that needs to change.”

Maine health care marketplace launches 

As the universal health care ballot campaign continues, Maine has unveiled CoverMe — its new state-based health insurance marketplace.

Open enrollment for plans kicked off Nov. 1, and the deadline to sign up for health care coverage for 2022 through the marketplace is Jan. 15, according to a news release from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The release also stated that there will be additional financial assistance from the federal government this year to help people pay for health plans and that more than 80% of those who look for insurance on qualify for aid.

“ is helping Maine people afford the health care they’ll need in 2022,” Gov. Janet Mills said earlier this month. “As we continue to tackle the pandemic and move our economic recovery forward, it’s never been more important to be able to see your doctor, receive care, get your medications, stay healthy, and contribute to our state, without sacrificing your family’s financial stability. I urge anyone who needs affordable coverage to visit today.” 

Ann Woloson of Consumers for Affordable Health Care also touted the state exchange. 

“Individual marketplace coverage is more affordable than it previously has been because of the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this year,” Woloson said at a recent event. “Tens of thousands of Mainers are receiving additional help paying their health insurance premiums and are accessing the health care they need to treat chronic illness or get the preventive care they need.”

Maine activists rally for universal health care in Lewiston in 2017.

However, Ryder said the issue with marketplace-style coverage is that it still treats health care like a commodity rather than a right. Particularly in a state like Maine where a significant segment of the population — 11.8% — lives in poverty, Ryder said a marketplace health care structure puts plans out of reach for some. 

“I know that people depend on it now and it saves a lot [for] people. But it’s incredibly flawed and it’s not as beneficial as it should be,” Ryder said of the marketplace. 

In the meantime, advocates like Kathy Kilrain del Rio, director of campaigns and health care advocacy at Maine Equal Justice, continue to encourage people to sign up for the marketplace. She added that Mainers who miss the Jan. 15 open enrollment deadline can still get coverage if they’ve experienced certain life events. 

Kilrain del Rio said Maine as a state has made significant strides in expanding coverage and closing gaps since 2019, which she argued is extremely important given that the pandemic has shown how intertwined individual health is with the health of the collective population. 

Still, Kilrain del Rio said she’s glad to see a universal health care ballot campaign.

“There’s lots of different ways we can get to a place where everyone has health care so I’m so happy to see people working really hard to make that happen, whether it’s through the ballot initiative, whether it’s through various initiatives in the legislature, whether it’s trying to pass the Build Back Better package, which has some really good pieces of health care policy in it,” she said. 

Kilrain del Rio added that while the conversation about universal coverage continues, it’s important for advocates to also work to continue closing gaps in existing health care structures. 

“We need to keep making progress on the systems that we have while we also try to envision and create a system that truly works for everyone,” she said.

Top photo: Maine Health Care Action via Facebook 

Categories: Beacon tags

Mainers call on Golden to support historic climate, care investments in Build Back Better

Tue, 11/16/2021 - 08:56

Pointing to the need to take swift action on the climate crisis, address a broken child care system and reduce health costs, Mainers in Lewiston and Bangor on Saturday called for Rep. Jared Golden to support a package that advocates argue would make historic investments in rebuilding the country’s fractured social safety net. 

Golden is among a handful of Democratic holdouts on the Build Back Better bill — President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion human infrastructure package, which is designed to address a variety of unmet needs. Negotiations on the measure have dragged on for months, but advocates hope the House will take up the bill this week. 

As Beacon previously reported, Golden earlier this month was among a small group of conservative House Democrats who blocked a vote on the package because they want to see the Congressional Budget Office’s deficit projections on the framework. House Democrats did approve a rule that sets the terms for debate when the Build Back Better legislation comes to the floor.

In the Senate, conservative Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have succeeded in cutting the package from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion, eliminating popular programs such as free universal community college, Medicare coverage for dental and vision, and the Clean Electricity Performance Program. 

But during rallies Saturday at Golden’s Lewiston and Bangor offices organized by the Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA) and other state organizations, Build Back Better proponents said the bill would still represent a much-needed investment to address a variety of issues, such as the climate crisis. 

“Build Back Better has been called the largest effort to combat climate change in American history,” said Hallie Arno, a member of Maine Youth for Climate Justice. “We know that now is the time for climate action, and we have delayed too long. We need federal legislation if we are going to combat the climate crisis in a timely manner,” 

The push for strong climate action comes as negotiators at an international climate summit in Glasgow came to an agreement over the weekend that activists argue does not meet the urgency of the moment. 

Others at the Lewiston and Bangor rallies called on Golden to support Build Back Better by pointing out that the package would help parents in Maine more easily find and afford child care. 

Mainers at the rally Saturday | MSEA via Facebook

“The Build Back Better Act will create an early childhood education system that supports Maine families by making affordable child care and universal preschool available to Maine children like mine and yours, who deserve the best possible start,” state Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) said at the Bangor rally. 

An estimated 22% of Mainers live in so-called “child care deserts.” And in places where such services are available, many parents struggle with the steep cost of child care even as workers in the industry are often paid extremely low wages. 

Maintaining that type of broken system is unacceptable, said Jordyn Rossignol, a child care provider and mother who also spoke at the rally. She asked Golden to recognize the urgent challenges many Maine families face by supporting a bill that will “take the burden of funding in the entire birth-to-five system off of the backs of young parents.” 

“Congressman Golden, I’m not asking you to lengthen the process of this bill or try to get changes made. I am simply as a mom and an advocate for all children in Maine asking for your vote,” Rossignol said. “All across Maine, families of many backgrounds, skills and strengths and stories of our own are asking you to vote yes to help our families and strengthen our communities.” 

Along with addressing problems with the child care system, Dean Staffieri, president of MSEA, emphasized the potential of the Build Back Better package to make substantial improvements on a variety of other issues as well. 

“Congress has the opportunity to help working families across the second congressional district by providing greater access to affordable child care and home care for our seniors,” Staffieri said. “They have the opportunity to lower prescription drug costs and they have the opportunity to protect Maines way of life by addressing climate change. This opportunity won’t last forever and we hope our entire congressional delegation will vote for BBB.”

MSEA executive director Alec Maybarduk, who attended the Lewiston rally, added on Twitter that the bill would also help hold corporations accountable for violating workers’ rights. The Build Back Better package includes elements of the PRO Act, a measure that would make it easier for workers to form unions and harder for employers to run union-busting campaigns.  

Over the weekend, a spokesperson for Golden told News Center Maine that the congressman is reviewing the Build Back Better bill and will wait for “cost and budget analysis of the legislation before making a decision on how he will vote.” A House vote on the package is expected this week.

Top photo: The rally in Lewiston | Alec Maybarduk via Twitter 

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Maine firefighters union suffers minimal vaccine mandate losses

Mon, 11/15/2021 - 08:30

While the pandemic has put outsized stress on first responders and other frontline health care workers across the state, the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine (PFFM) said that only 9 of their 1,400 (0.6%) members have quit over the COVID vaccine mandate, which went into effect on October 29. 

The PFFM represents active and retired firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, communication operators, inspectors, training officers and other fire department personnel in 35 IAFF Locals throughout the state of Maine. The union represents about 65% of in-state career firefighters.

When the COVID vaccine mandate was first announced, 128 members of the PFFM were yet to be vaccinated. But after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt to carve out a religious exemption to the mandate, many members decided to get vaccinated.

“Out of the 128, I had about nine hardcore, religious exemption folks that won’t take the vaccine under any circumstances who quit or are waiting to get fired. And that’s unfortunate,” PFFM President Michael Crouse told Beacon. “Losing even one member is too many, but it was only a handful of terminations, and then we negotiated severance packages with several others so they can keep health care until the end of the year.”

The mandate hasn’t caused any disruptions for PFFM-related services. However, Crouse said that staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic have created unsustainable working conditions for pre-hospital care workers in the union.

“Our biggest issue we’re facing today, is that the health care community and EMS have a staffing shortage. And that was way before the pandemic,” Crouse said. “The pandemic didn’t help, but a lot of our members were leaving before the mandate because of COVID stress, the fear of being exposed on the job, bringing the virus home to their kids, family. Then when the mandate came in, some members just decided to retire earlier than anticipated.”

The staffing shortage has also forced PFFM workers to labor long hours, handling an increased patient load, which forced overtime work. In some instances, PFFM has had to agree to hire per-diem contracted paramedics until they can get full time hires.

“When our departments are short staffed, the level of our services are reduced. Because of the vacancies, we’re even forced to reduce qualifications necessary for the job. The paramedics aren’t around, they’re not interested,” Crouse said. “We’ve been working 48, 72 straight hours. On the paramedic level, they’re being forced to work 96 hours straight. Lack of family time, stress, it’s just been one thing after another.”

These poor working conditions have created a mental health crisis within PFFM. Over the last six months, the PFFM behavioral health program’s caseload has tripled.

“The real impact the pandemic had was on behavioral health,” Crouse said. “I have 14 of our members who are on workers comp for behavioral health disorders. Most of them are because of COVID stress.”

The union is hoping to receive state funding to hire untrained EMTs and then invest in their education to become paramedics. This process will hopefully help fill the current labor shortage. But so far, the Mills administration has not been receptive to the idea despite allocating $14 million to training in-state health care workers. 

Mills’ plan to rejuvenate Maine’s health care industry was announced on Oct. 25 and includes $4 million for scholarships and student loan relief for health care professionals. Another $8.5 million will be spent on advanced training for health care workers, and another $2.1 million is allotted for recruiting new workers into the health care field.

“Mills lumped us into the health care classification for the mandate. But that package for training does not include us,” Crouse said. “We’ve pushed back on that to at least clarify that that money could help pay for paramedics. To get someone trained it’s $70,000. It’s a lot of money.”

The lack of state funding has pushed PFFM to negotiate with cities and towns to pay for worker training. And so far, they have made some progress.

“We’re looking to hire basic EMTs, and offering to train them to the level of paramedic and cities are willing to pay for it. We’re negotiating educational stipends and we guarantee three to five years of employment,” Crouse said. “In Biddeford for instance, the city will pay for $6,000 towards your student loans towards the paramedic degree. It takes two years to get your associates.”

Even if the funding is attained, PFFM worries that COVID has altered the state’s health care industry for the long term— finding workers will be challenging no matter the incentives provided.

“COVID has brought a negative image to our health care industry. Because of the exposure, the threats,” Crouse said. “Because of the shortages, which are being attributed to COVID, new workers are told they’ll be working overtime for five or six days in a row. You’re being forced to work overtime. They look at the pay, the benefits and that’s important. But now they’re looking at how much work you are doing in that place. People want to do the work, but not all the work.”

Photo: Veni, Creative Commons via flickr

Categories: Beacon tags

Legislators optimistic paid leave commission will craft inclusive policy for Maine

Fri, 11/12/2021 - 09:32

Members of a commission tasked with recommending legislation to establish a statewide paid family and medical leave policy say they are encouraged by the group’s first meeting and optimistic that the committee will ultimately craft an inclusive and effective benefit plan. 

As Beacon previously reported, the commission was formed through a bill sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland), which was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills in July. That bill established a group with 12 voting members to study the issue of paid leave and submit a report by Feb. 1 that “includes its findings and recommendations, including suggested legislation,” for consideration in the upcoming legislative session. 

The commission is chaired by Daughtry and Rep. Kristen Cloutier (D-Lewiston). Two Republican legislators, Sen. Kim Rosen of Hancock County and Rep. Paul Stearns of Guilford, are also members. 

The group met for the first time Oct. 29 and will meet again Nov. 15. In all, the commission is authorized to hold six meetings to develop its recommendations for a paid family and medical leave policy. Such systems, which exist in every other industrialized country in the world, generally provide paid leave to those welcoming a child or people who need to take significant time from work to recover from a health problem or take care of a loved one. 

‘As inclusive as possible’

In an interview, Cloutier said she is excited about the conversations the commission had during their first meeting, saying there was a lot of energy around creating a strong paid leave policy for Maine. 

“It seemed like everybody was really on the same page in terms of wanting it to be as inclusive as possible and I think really wanting to move forward from a place where we weren’t starting out the conversation talking about how much everything was going to cost,” Cloutier said. “We really wanted to explore what the options were and cost it out based upon what we thought the best program would be.” 

As conversations continue around the program — which has been implemented in a handful of other states — Cloutier said one focus for her is ensuring that a paid leave system in Maine has a broad definition of family that allows loved ones to take time off to care for someone in need. As Beacon previously reported, family caregivers are some of the people who would most benefit from a paid leave system. An estimated 181,000 Mainers take care of an older or disabled family member in their home, doing $2.2 billion worth of unpaid work each year. 

Cloutier said she knows from her experience caring for her mom how difficult and consuming such work can be, arguing that a paid leave system would make such care easier to provide. 

“People are being forced to make choices that are not ideal, the consequences of which they have to live with for the rest of their lives, so I want to see us do as much as we can for as many folks as we can,” Cloutier said. 

Sen. Mattie Daughtry | Michele Stapleton via Facebook

Daughtry agreed, saying she’s seen many friends, family members and constituents struggle over the years with having to balance access to care with staying afloat financially.

Given those issues, Daughtry said she believes it’s important for any paid leave program to be universal, affordable and accessible.

“I want to see this apply to all Mainers,” she said, adding that paid leave is “a common good.” 

Daughtry also said it’s crucial the commission hear from Mainers of all different backgrounds about what they’d like to see in a paid leave policy. While the details of how to do that are still being worked out, she said there will be a “robust public comment process.” Daughtry encouraged those interested in participating to weigh in, noting that hearing stories from people who have been impacted by paid leave or lack thereof will be extremely powerful for the commission. 

With that input, Daughtry said her goal is for the development of a paid leave policy in Maine to be a community process.

“This is about us taking care of each other. This isn’t an individual thing, this is a community thing and this would have such a transformative power,” she said of having paid leave in Maine. 

Ensuring a strong policy for workers

DrewChristopher Joy, leadership development coordinator at the Southern Maine Workers’ Center and another member of the paid leave commission, said he also felt optimistic after the group’s first meeting. One high point in particular was hearing about how the issue of paid leave had impacted other members of the commission, he said. 

“There was a lot of room for people to tell stories about their personal connection to this issue and to talk about what the policy priorities are for them when it comes to family and medical leave, which felt like the right place to start this conversation,” he said. 

Joy said part of his role on the commission is bringing the perspective of low-wage workers — who he argued are too often left behind in negotiations around social policy — to the table. He added that after the first meeting, he believes others on the commission are also interested in discussing how paid leave can best help workers, particularly those who need it the most. 

When it comes to the final policy, Joy said the Southern Maine Workers’ Center will be looking at the degree to which the system developed by the commission is universal, explaining that the organization wants to see a policy in which people who work in businesses of all sizes are covered as well as people employed in different types of jobs. 

Along with those issues, Joy said another priority will be ensuring there is a significant pay replacement rate for workers who take time off under the policy. 

“That really matters for low-wage workers,” he said. “Getting 60 percent of your wages may not actually be a benefit you can take advantage of. You may need to be making all or very close to all of your money to be able to afford to actually take this time.” 

With the inclusion of a national paid leave policy in the Build Back Better plan still an open question — and likely reduced from the 12 weeks advocates originally pushed for to four weeks if it does make it into the bill — Joy said it’s important for Maine to develop an expansive policy. He added that the pandemic has shown the importance of having a system that allows people to take time off without suffering economic repercussions, arguing that now is the time to pass and implement a paid leave policy in Maine. 

“There’s momentum behind this issue, we have this commission and we’re going to hopefully come out with some really strong recommendations,” Joy said. “It’s time to move this issue forward.” 

Top photo: A sign in support of paid leave in Maine | Courtesy of Paid Leave for ME Facebook group 

Categories: Beacon tags

Opinion: This isn’t just a pro-labor moment, it’s a movement

Wed, 11/10/2021 - 08:27

I will always remember the day that I attended Walmart’s anti-union training. I was a young department manager in the mid-aughts. Like my coworkers, I arrived for work every morning in my blue vest, my corporate-approved cargo pants, and my nametag. Store meetings were always held in the employee break room, a stark white room with fluorescent lighting and cheap plastic tables—except for the anti-union meeting. 

On that day they pulled all the department managers out of the store and drove us across town to a very nice hotel. We left our blue vests and nametags behind, and got out from under the fluorescent lights. We were fed finger sandwiches and little bags of potato chips and then we were subjected to the anti-union lecture. 

They regaled us (through a slideshow presentation in a dark, carpeted conference room) with horrific tales about how unions will control your life, how you won’t be able to move up in the company unless the union tells you you can, and how unions will dictate your work schedule and your uniform. 

One thing they neglected to mention throughout the entire presentation was that a union is literally just an organization of coworkers, united to protect each other, preserve what they like about their work, and take action to accomplish necessary improvements. They painted the union as some mysterious separate entity coming in to make our jobs horrible, and then called on us to tattle on each other if we heard a coworker talk about joining together to address injustice at work.

I now work as an adjunct college instructor for two colleges in the Maine Community College System. I am also very active in our union, a chapter of the Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA-SEIU Local 1989). I was elected by my coworkers to serve as our union chapter president. However, I am not writing this as a representative of our union, but instead as a supporter of workers’ rights everywhere.

Unions remain the best protection we have for workers, and in these pandemic times the power of organization has been very visible. Unions have been active across the country protecting workers from unsafe COVID-19 practices and unfair work expectations. Here in Maine, we’ve seen the recent unionization of workers at Maine Medical Center, Preble Street Resource Center and Planned Parenthood. And now Bates College workers are taking steps to form a union, as well. 

Since becoming involved with my union, I’ve watched our chapter grow exponentially. I’ve had opportunities to speak at the Maine State House—real opportunities to express my concerns about the ways our community college system is and is not serving both its students and employees. I’ve been at the negotiation table working to protect my colleagues during the pandemic and I celebrated when the previous negotiating team won pay parity across all of the community college campuses. Beyond all of that, through union involvement I have found a way for me and my coworkers to have a voice at work.

Adjunct instructors are in a unique position in education. We are not full-time faculty, we often have other jobs and teach on the side, and our position in the schools where we teach has never been very strong. But through our union, we have been able to protect what we love about our jobs and collaborate with management to make real, solid and positive improvements for ourselves and our students. 

Beacon recently reported on concerns that Bates is holding meetings with union-busting consultants, who are paid excessive amounts of money to misinform and intimidate employees against exercising their legal right to unionize. The administration should be spending that money on supporting students and staff—not sowing confusion, division, and fear between coworkers. 

Right now, Bates employees need our support in their organizing efforts, and there are a few ways we can show up. You can use this template to email Bates President Clayton Spencer and Vice President Geoffrey Swift to call on them to remain neutral towards employees forming their union and to not use college resources to bust those efforts. Even better, call Spencer’s office at 207-786-6100 to ask that she do the right thing. 

Since my early 20s when Walmart tried (and failed) to convince me that I should be against my coworkers and I having a real voice at work, I have been intrigued and energized by the power of unions: the power of organized workers. I have seen firsthand what comes when workers join together and use their voices to effectively advocate for themselves and their communities. I stand in solidarity with Bates workers in their unioniziation efforts and I hope you will stand with them as well. 

Top photo: Students hung signs and chalked messages of support around the Bates College campus following the announcement that staff had filed with federal authorities to hold a union election. | Courtesy of Maine Service Employees Association

Categories: Beacon tags

Hundreds protest Hannaford calling on chain to improve dairy worker conditions

Wed, 11/10/2021 - 07:57

Two hundred people marched in Portland on Monday in protest of Hannaford, demanding the supermarket chain sign a pledge to source dairy products from farms with strong labor protections.

The action was the culmination of Migrant Justice’s 28-stop, month-long New England “Dignity Tour,” which included seven Maine locations.

During the tour, the group educated consumers on the dire working conditions on local dairy farms and repeatedly called on Hannaford to join the organization’s Milk With Dignity (MWD) program. If the chain becomes a member, farms involved in the production of Hannaford-branded milk would be legally required to follow a set of worker-created standards for improved housing, wages, health and safety conditions. 

“It’s been two years and we’ve heard nothing from Hannaford,” Abel Luna, an organizer with Migrant Justice said. “We are here, we are present together with our allies, to let Hannaford know that we are not going to go away until they sign on to our Milk with Dignity program.” 

Hannaford did not respond to Beacon’s request for comment.

Monday’s protest involved a march with stops at Hannaford’s Back Cove location and the H.P. Hood milk processing plant, which bottles and distributes Hannaford-branded milk to grocery stores across the northeast. Protestors from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts all marched with the dairy workers.

Giovanni, a Vermont dairy worker, kicked off the rally in front of Hannaford. He emphasized that dairy workers like himself suffer from poor housing, long hours and lack of safety and health protocols. These conditions lead to their “whole lives being work.”

“Many of us traveled here today from Vermont. We left our farm five or six hours ago to make this journey here to Maine because we want to join with you to send a strong message to Hannaford. And then our voices will be listened to. We are sending a clear message. That we want milk with dignity,” Giovanni said.

Protesters rallied outside Hannaford in Portland before marching to the Hood milk processing plant. | Nathan Bernard, Beacon

“This is not the first time we have taken actions like this and we hope it won’t be the last. We have a saying in our community, ‘united we are stronger together,’” he added. “We hope that together, with you, we can achieve more than we’ve ever dreamed.”

MWD was first conceived in 2009 after young dairy worker José Obeth Santiz Cruz was pulled into a mechanized gutter scraper and strangled to death by his own clothing. Three years ago, Ben & Jerry’s signed on to the group’s pilot program. Working and housing conditions for their more than 250 dairy farm workers have improved as a result. 

The protesters worked their way to the H.P. Hood plant on Park Ave. According to MWD research, the milk bottled in the Hood plant is sold all over Maine, including Portland, Skowhegan, Belfast and Waterville. Hannaford stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York also get their milk directly from the Portland-based bottler.

“We know that Hannaford needs to clean up their supply chain. That the farmworkers producing their milk need to be treated with dignity and respect,” Enrique Balcazar, a former dairy worker and MWD activist from Vermont, said. “We need to know that the milk on their shelves is free from human rights abuses.”

Over the summer, Balcazar was part of the group who traveled throughout Maine meeting with dairy workers. He said that the same poor working conditions on Vermont’s farms exist in Maine. 

“I met with a husband and wife with a young child in Maine whose house did not have heat in it. They were working for less than minimum wage,” Balcazar said. “I met another farmworker who was working seven days a week without rest. You could see the fatigue in her face from the long hours and heavy workload.”

In their speeches, the Migrant Justice organizers made clear that the protest was not an attack on Hood or Hannaford workers. They also thanked the Southern Maine Labor Council and organized labor leaders in Maine, who have both openly supported Migrant Justice and their Milk With Dignity program.

“We are all part of the working class. And during this pandemic, all these workers, farmworkers included, are considered essential workers,” Balcazar concluded. “Hannaford is responsible for the rights and well being of all these essential workers. From the workers putting the milk on the shelves, to the workers like us who are milking the cows in the barn. All of us deserve dignity.”

Photo: Dairy farm workers and supporters rallied outside Hannaford in Portland on Nov. 8. | Nathan Bernard, Beacon

Categories: Beacon tags

After pandemic exposed Maine’s frayed safety net, report details best policy solutions

Tue, 11/09/2021 - 09:06

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that policymakers must take steps to improve working conditions and ensure greater racial and economic equity, according to a new report that examined labor conditions in Maine in 2021. 

The report, titled “State of Working Maine: 2021,” was released last week by the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) and written by policy analyst James Myall. The annual study detailed how the recession caused by the pandemic upended labor conditions in the state, creating a new set of challenges for workers while also exacerbating already existing inequalities. 

“The unexpected onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many flaws in our economic system and made it clear just how vulnerable many Maine workers were. The arrival of the pandemic itself was unexpected, but much of the resulting fallout was not,” Myall wrote.

In the report, Myall urged officials in Maine to take action to spur a faster recovery, calling for a greater focus on the health, safety, and employment conditions of workers. Specifically, he outlined three areas that policymakers should emphasize: issues related to frontline workers; improving programs to aid workers; and investing in reforms to child care, equity and workplace practices.

Frontline workers

In the report, Myall noted that frontline workers often face much more dangerous labor conditions than others in the state, with Mainers who work in-person 50% more likely to contract COVID-19. 

Those who work frontline jobs are more likely to be people of color and women, Myall found, and are less likely to be paid a living wage or have access to affordable health care. 

“This is no coincidence,” he argued. “The segregation of women and people of color into low-wage work with less access to benefits is the result of centuries of historic and current-day discrimination in the labor market.” 

The higher percentage of people of color who work frontline jobs is likely one reason for the racial disparity in Maine’s COVID-19 cases, with the report finding that Black Mainers were more than twice as likely to have contracted the virus than white people as of September.

With the pandemic still ongoing, MECEP recommends a number of policies to further support frontline workers, who many politicians have repeatedly held up as heroes. 

One such initiative is increasing the scope of Maine’s paid time off law. Myall wrote that the law excludes 15% of workers and only provides up to five days of time off for those who are covered, far below the 14 days of quarantine recommended for those exposed to COVID-19. 

Myall also argued that Maine should enact a paid family and medical leave law to provide workers with support if they need to take a longer period of time off. A commission set up by the legislature has been tasked with developing a paid leave policy for Maine that lawmakers are expected to vote on during the upcoming session. 

In addition, Myall recommended that the state empower workers to take employers to court when their labor rights are violated. Lawmakers introduced and passed a bill during the legislative session earlier this year that would have allowed workers — particularly those in low-wage, frontline jobs — to more easily pursue such cases. However, the measure was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills. 

Another policy for frontline workers that lawmakers should consider is encouraging the increased formation of unions, with unionized workplaces generally safer than those that aren’t organized, according to the report. 

Along with those reforms, MECEP argued that workers should be paid a higher wage. 

“Lawmakers should recognize the risks faced by frontline workers,” Myall wrote. “Increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 would increase wages for 148,000 Mainers, including many in the highest-risk frontline occupations. And to phase out the lower minimum wage for tipped workers would provide a much needed raise to 16,000 workers most impacted by the pandemic and recession.”

Improving programs

The report also details the challenging economic circumstances Mainers have faced for over a year and a half. 

The beginning of the pandemic spurred large scale job losses and furloughs as the spread of the virus sparked a recession. Those employment challenges hit low-income workers, women, and people of color in Maine particularly hard, Myall noted, and such groups have seen the least benefit from the economic recovery since the start of the crisis. 

The difficulties spurred by the pandemic are reflected in the fact that between May 2020 and March 2021, more than one in four Maine adults couldn’t afford regular household expenses each week, the report found. Furthermore, one in 15 Mainers didn’t have enough to eat and one in 20 were behind in housing payments, with such rates particularly high for families with children and among people of color. 

Federal and state aid helped alleviate these difficulties for some, Myall said. But shortcomings in the social safety net left others unsupported, he argued. 

“The holes in programs like [unemployment insurance] and [the federal Paycheck Protection Program] meant that significant numbers still suffered economically during the pandemic,” he wrote.

To better support people in need, MECEP recommends that Maine continue to reform its unemployment insurance program — which lawmakers modernized earlier this year — pointing to increasing the replacement wage rate for workers with the lowest income levels as a beneficial potential change. In addition, federal unemployment insurance should be adjusted, with Myall writing that the program would function better if more weeks of payment were provided when work is difficult to find.

MECEP also called for Maine to continue funding universal free school meals into the future and expand eligibility for Medicaid. 

Workplace reforms 

The report also delves into further reforms that would help address barriers to work and allow Mainers to fully recover from the COVID-19 crisis. 

One such issue outlined by the report is the lack of access to affordable child care for many in Maine. Even before the pandemic, finding child care was a challenge in the state. However, the report noted that the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the issue. As of August, 25,000 Mainers were out of work because of child care issues, including 22,000 women. 

“Without an expansion of child care services in the state, these Mainers will be left behind in any recovery, as they will be severely limited in their ability to take good paying jobs that fit their skillset on the schedules that work for them,” Myall wrote. 

Along with establishing an accessible system that includes publicly subsidized child care, Myall said policymakers can improve labor conditions and remove barriers to work by reforming scheduling practices to provide greater predictability, particularly for low wage workers. The state should also invest in programs that focus on hiring people of color and immigrants, who Myall wrote “still face barriers in Maine’s labor market rooted in discrimination,” and should step up enforcement of anti-discrimination laws through heightened penalities for violations. 

These types of reforms are crucial to ensure a better future for workers throughout Maine, Myall argued. 

“It is urgent for policymakers to address the needs of workers in Maine, both to recognize the hardships incurred by working Mainers over the past 18 months and to ensure a robust recovery to an economy that is stronger and more inclusive,” he wrote. 

Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Categories: Beacon tags

Staff, students disappointed Bates has engaged union-busting consultants

Mon, 11/01/2021 - 09:17

Staff members at Bates College in Lewiston had hoped for a more amicable atmosphere with management during their effort to form a union at the private liberal arts school. Now, they are worried the administration may be settling into a defensive posture and working with anti-union consultants. 

The administration had scheduled informational meetings for staff last Wednesday and again on Friday with someone they described as a labor consultant to answer any questions workers might have about unions, but both of those meetings were canceled without reason given.

A flyer opposing the union was shared on Twitter by a Bates student on Oct. 29.

Workers recently learned that the school administration had consulted with Carol Holland, a human resources expert from the hospital industry, and said they suspected she was involved in the planned meeting. Holland’s LinkedIn profile says she provides strategic support to employers in “assessing and mitigating labor risk” as the president of Compass Healthcare Advisors in Boston.

Workers say they are skeptical that Holland and another anti-union consultant the school has been communicating with would actually be providing unbiased information about unions to staff interested to learn more.

Also, not all workers were invited to the meetings.

“I haven’t been invited. In fact, lots of people that I know haven’t been invited to the information sessions,” said Ethan Miller, an adjunct lecturer in Environmental Studies, Politics and Anthropology departments. “I do feel it’s clear that the administration is targeting its so-called information toward the most vulnerable employees, employees who are the lowest paid.”

Anti-organizing meetings pitched as informational sessions are common in the anti-union playbook. Union organizers are often excluded from these forums. During recent high-profile union drives at Amazon and No Evil Foods, media reports detailed how workers were required to attend mandatory meetings where they were subjected to anti-union talking points crafted by consultants.

Miller is a member of the union organizing committee and said, before they were cancelled, organizers were not invited to share information during the planned sessions. In response, organizers have scheduled their own informational meeting for staff on Nov. 4.

“There’s been zero offers from the administration saying, ‘There’s a forum we’re going to have and we’d like to offer you a space to share your perspective because we’ll be sharing ours,’” Miller said. “For me, there’s nothing neutral when those who have the power to hire and fire people say they’re the only legitimate ones to ask questions of. That doesn’t pass the straight-face test at all.”

Bates would not confirm whether Holland has been hired by the administration.

Refusal to remain neutral

Earlier this month, Bates staff announced they had filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, citing low pay, poor working conditions and declining staff retention as their reasons for organizing. If successful, staff would form the Bates Educators and Staff Organization, a chapter of the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989 (which also represents Beacon staff), which would represent adjunct faculty and all non-managerial staff.

In their announcement, union organizers urged the administration to remain neutral during the process. But soon after, in an Oct. 12 email to staff and students, Bates College President Clayton Spencer said that her administration would not stay silent during the union drive and will engage in a public anti-union campaign.

“No one can make an informed choice if they hear only one side of a story,” Spencer’s letter read. “That is simply not how deliberative processes or democratic elections work, particularly at an educational institution.”

Students, alumni and lawmakers have expressed support for Bates staff and condemned the administration’s response.

“Our role as student support organizers is just asking for neutrality and supporting the workers and their right to freely organize,” said Dianna Georges, a senior at Bates.

Georges scoffed at the administration’s framing that they are providing a space for informed deliberation during a democratic process. 

“It’s ridiculous that in their refusal to stay neutral they presented it as protecting free and open speech,” she said. “It’s not about both sides. It’s about the workers making an informed decision about whether they want to form a union. That doesn’t come from the people in power who have a vested interest in the union not happening.” 

Students protest meeting with employment lawyer

There are also now allegations that Bates administration has used intimidation tactics to deter workers. Workers filed a complaint on Oct. 18 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that oversees union elections, alleging that the administration illegally threatened employees with adverse consequences, such as the loss of benefits and termination.

Two weeks before the complaint, Georges and other students held a protest outside Spencer’s office during a meeting between administrators and Nicholas DiGiovanni, a Boston-based employment lawyer with experience countering higher education union drives. The demonstrators said they saw the meeting as a step by the administration towards union busting.

Student newspaper The Bates Student first reported on the meeting.

“I think the role of students is to, with our privilege of protection as sort of funders of this college, to try to hold the administration accountable for things like hiring someone whose job it is to dissuade and misinform and intimidate people from making their own choice,” Bates senior Wilder Geier, one of the organizers of the protest, said of the meeting.

DiGiovanni’s firm, Morgan, Brown and Joy, describes itself as “the oldest and largest management-side employment law firm in New England.” The firm lists one of its main areas of practice as “union avoidance strategy.” In the 1970s, the firm provided its legal services to Maine Medical Center during an unsuccessful unionization effort by nurses at the state’s largest hospital. The nurses finally unionized earlier this year after again facing an aggressive anti-union campaign led by another out-of-state firm.

DiGiovanni has represented school administrations, including those of Tufts and Harvard universities, in collective bargaining negotiations. The Bates Student reported that DiGiovanni has also successfully litigated to exclude full-time faculty members at Tufts University Medical School and Elmira College from unions, successfully arguing they had managerial status and were thus ineligible for membership.

The administration told The Bates Student that the meeting with DiGiovanni was a standard consultation in response to a legal process initiated by union organizers. Spencer’s office would not confirm to Beacon whether Holland or DiGiovanni are being contracted by the college on an ongoing basis.

This wouldn’t be the first time Bates has worked with anti-union consultants. During an unsuccessful union election by dining service workers in 1999, the college hired the New York City-based union avoidance firm Nixon Peabody LLP.

Following the 1999 union election, organizers filed a complaint with the NLRB alleging employees’ benefits and jobs were threatened. The NLRB determined that the college made no undue influence on the election, however, as no workers came forward to testify.

Photos: Earlier this month, students hung signs and chalked messages of support around the Bates College campus following the announcement that staff had filed with federal authorities to hold a union election. | Courtesy of Maine Service Employees Association

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Proponents call for expansive paid leave plan in Maine as commission holds first meeting

Fri, 10/29/2021 - 09:10

Friday morning marks the first meeting of a commission tasked by Maine lawmakers with recommending legislation to establish a statewide paid family and medical leave program, which proponents hope will prevent workers from being forced to choose between their economic livelihood and caring for themselves or a loved one. 

The commission was formed through a bill sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland), which was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills in July. That bill established a commission with 12 voting members to study the issue of paid leave and submit a report by Feb. 1 that “includes its findings and recommendations, including suggested legislation,” for consideration in next year’s legislative session. 

The commission will be chaired by Daughtry and Rep. Kristen Cloutier (D-Lewiston). Two Republican legislators, Sen. Kim Rosen of Hancock County and Rep. Paul Stearns of Guilford, are also members. 

Additional members include representatives from the business community: Wendy Estabrook, director of human resources at L.L. Bean (representing larger employers), and Emily Ingwersen, owner of Ginger Hill Design + Build (representing small employers). DrewChristopher Joy of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center is also on the commission along with Sarah Brydon, an expert on paid family and medical leave benefits, and Charlie Mitchell, an employer in the hospitality industry. Two commission members were appointed by Mills: Barbara Crowley, executive vice president at MaineGeneral Health, and Bonita Usher, a former legislator and expert on care for older Mainers. Laura Fortman, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor, will serve on the body as well.  

The commission is tasked with addressing a major gap in the social safety net in Maine and the U.S. as a whole, which remains the only industrialized country without a national paid family and medical leave system. Such systems generally provide paid leave to those welcoming a child or people who need to take significant time from work to recover from a health problem or take care of a loved one. 

Around the country, just 15% of workers have access to paid leave. In addition, one in four new mothers take fewer than 11 days of leave after giving birth, despite the fact that experts recommend 6-8 weeks off to recover. And U.S. workers collectively lose over $20 billion in wages annually due to the lack of paid leave.

The absence of a national paid leave system has led a handful of states to enact their own policies. 

In Maine, conversations about creating such a system came to the forefront in 2019, when then-House Speaker Sara Gideon unveiled a bill that policy analysts said would have created one of the best paid leave benefit structures in the country. The bill died in 2020 when lawmakers adjourned early due to the pandemic. 

Then-House Speaker Sara Gideon testifies on paid family and medical leave in 2019 | Beacon photo

But with the COVID-19 crisis continuing to rage in Maine and across the U.S., advocates have reginited the fight, arguing that establishing a system allowing workers to meet their basic needs without suffering economic repercussions is long overdue. Such arguments have the support of Mainers, with 75.5% of people in favor of establishing a paid leave system in the state, according to a 2020 poll. 

Against that backdrop, members of the commission said they are excited to begin the work of studying and proposing a paid leave system for Maine.

“New parents need time to bond with their babies. Adults need time to care for their older parents when they’re in need. And everyone needs time to recover from a medical condition or accident,” Cloutier said in a press release. “These are not privileges, they are necessities in order to have healthy families and a healthy economy.” 

“Paid family and medical leave has been one of my top priorities since I was first elected to the Legislature,” Daughtry added. “As both a young woman who wants to start a family some day and a business owner, I know how important it is that we create a policy that works for both workers and employers. I’m so excited for this commission to get to work, so we can share our best ideas and move Maine forward.” 

‘A huge help’ 

With the commission kicking off, advocates are watching closely to see whether the group will report out a bill that substantially improves conditions for working Mainers. 

Amy Larkin, a volunteer with Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) and a family caregiver, said a strong paid leave system would provide a massive boost for her family.

Larkin lives with her 99-year-old grandmother, who she and her husband have taken care of for nearly four years.

Soon after she started as a caregiver, Larkin said her grandmother fell and broke her wrist. As a result, she needed extra help from Larkin completing basic tasks. 

“So for several months after moving in, it was just a lot of time I couldn’t work. And given that I work for myself, it was just time I couldn’t make any income,” Larkin said. 

During such times when her grandmother has needed more help, her family has often struggled to keep up with expenses, Larkin said. She explained that having a strong paid leave system in Maine would take “a lot of stress off of all of us knowing that some of that income would be covered.” 

Larkin’s situation is not unique. An estimated 181,000 Mainers take care of an older or disabled family member in their home, doing $2.2 billion worth of unpaid work each year. 

“It’s tough work,” Larkin said of caregiving. “We’re doing a lot of unpaid labor and [paid leave] would definitely be a huge help.” 

Along with family caregivers, Larkin added that she hopes self-employed people such as herself, as well freelancers, gig workers, contract workers and others will all have access to the benefit program.

“Those people definitely need to be included because they’re facing all of the same issues,” she said. 

Courtesy Maine Women’s Lobby via Facebook

Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, agreed that a paid leave system should cover all Mainers and “not exclude or exempt certain communities or certain kinds of workers.” 

Maine Women’s Lobby is part of the Maine Paid Family and Medical Leave Coalition, a group of 27 organizations pushing for a benefits system in Maine. Maine People’s Alliance is also part of that coalition. 

Those organizations have laid out a number of values for a paid leave system in Maine, including that it be comprehensive and include parental, medical and family care leave; that the system not be privately administered; that workers receive adequate wage replacement and a sufficient number of weeks of leave; and that premiums be paid by both workers and employers, among other best practices. 

“We all have parents and spouses and loved ones who age and need support and by failing to create a system that accounts for this, folks are essentially forced to either drop out of the workforce or ignore the crisis needs of their families,” Sprague said of the need for paid leave.  

The issue of people dropping out of the workforce has been especially pronounced among women recently, with Sprague pointing out that millions of women have been driven out of jobs during the pandemic in part because of the lack of social safety nets in the U.S. such as paid leave. 

Advocates had hoped to begin addressing those types of issues through creating a paid leave system at the national level as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better human infrastructure package. But after opposition from conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, that proposed system was jettisoned from a framework of the plan released Thursday by Biden.

Sprague said the absence of paid leave from Build Back Better is extremely disappointing, saying federal lawmakers are missing an opportunity to address multiple issues at once.

“Paid family and medical leave is the first step to a comprehensive child care system,” she said, explaining that child care centers don’t accept newborns but that lack of paid leave often forces new mothers to return to work soon after giving birth, leading to potentially unsafe situations for infants. 

Given the current situation, Sprague said it’s crucial that Maine develop its own paid leave plan.

“There’s never been a better time for us to address this, using our own people and ideas and resources,” she said. 

Top photo: Arundel resident Amy Larkin with her grandmother, Eva, who she cares for | Courtesy of Larkin

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Calling for higher standards, group warns of unsafe conditions at Maine dairy farms

Mon, 10/25/2021 - 07:47

Dairy workers from the advocacy group Migrant Justice launched a 28-stop New England tour, including seven Maine locations, this past month to convince Hannaford to join their “Milk With Dignity” program. If the supermarket chain becomes a member, farms involved in the production of Hannaford-branded milk will be legally required to follow a set of worker-created standards for improved housing, wages, health and safety conditions. 

Milk With Dignity (MWD) was first conceived in 2009 after young dairy worker José Obeth Santiz Cruz was pulled into a mechanized gutter scraper and strangled to death by his own clothing. Three years ago, Ben & Jerry’s signed on to the group’s pilot program. Working and housing conditions for their more than 250 dairy farm workers have improved as a result. 

“We are doing the speaking tour to build support and get Hannaford to join Milk With Dignity,” Elizabeth Ramirez, a dairy worker from Vermont, said. “We picked Hannaford as the next company because we know they have close to 200 stores in this region, and they are a large dairy buyer. They’ll have a huge impact to bring the protections to more workers on their farms.”

The workers decided to start their tour in Maine because Hannaford’s headquarters is located in Scarborough, though the chain is now owned by Belgian supermarket firm Delhaize. Additionally, they say that many dairy workers in Maine face adverse labor conditions.

“We’re calling on Hannaford to take responsibility for the conditions on the supply chain. They’re putting their store-brand label on the milk so they have a responsibility to make sure workers behind that milk are protected,” Ramirez said. “We are representing the voice of our community and bringing that voice to Maine.”

MWD has found a strong and diverse network of partners in Maine. They’ve teamed with student, faith and social justice groups statewide to build awareness about the dire conditions on dairy farms.

“We met with a Colby student group, the Oak Institute. We were recently with a community anti-racist group Showing Up for Racial Justice,” Madeline Sharrow, a MWD organizer, said. “[Democratic Socialists of America] is hosting us. A vegetable farm in Freedom, too. In June, we met with a faith organization in Portland and the Maine AFL-CIO. MOFGA [Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association], as well. So it’s been a range of students, faith organizations, community groups, agricultural groups, social justice groups that support us here.”

While touring Maine dairy farms in June, Migrant Justice found dire working and housing conditions, poor safety protocols and unsustainable work hours paid at a rate lower than the minimum wage.

“What we found in Maine was that conditions are substantially the same as Vermont, New York and around the region. All of the conditions that we have been exposing on Vermont farms are present here in Maine, as well,” Will Lambek, an organizer with MWD, said. “We understand the conditions around the region: sub-minimum wage, poor housing, high health and safety risk without sufficient protection, fear of retaliation, long hours without breaks. All those conditions exist in Maine.”

Poor conditions on dairy farms were exacerbated during the pandemic. In many cases, workers were required to continue laboring long hours even while sick with COVID-19. This increased COVID spread among dairy worker communities, creating an unlivable situation for many farm workers.

“Things got worse during the pandemic. You couldn’t travel, leave the state. Farmers were not hiring new people so you were stuck on the farm without an alternative,” Ramirez said. “Workers never got to stay home and quarantine, we kept working. Even when workers got sick, they had to keep working. There was no paid time off and they had to go and work even if they were sick.”

“The fear of retaliation kept workers from reporting symptoms. It’s not only cruel for the person working despite having COVID, but it guarantees community spread. And invariably, other workers on the farm will get sick from that. On many farms there are zero protections at all, the worst possible response to the pandemic,” Lambek added.

“Just last week,” he continued, “we got a call from a worker and his pregnant partner who were run-off the farm when they got the virus. They told the boss they couldn’t go into work and the boss told them, ‘If you don’t want to work, I’ll find someone who does.’ He kicked them off the farm and they had to leave their house the next day while sick with coronavirus.”

Supporters of MWD say the program could help address these types of issues, pointing to a new report from Migrant Justice that shows the initiative is making a difference. Since the inception of the program three years ago, over $1.8 million has been invested back into workers’ rights. The impact includes increased wages, better benefits and improved living conditions.

“The biggest chunk of the $1.8 million is from wages. Outside the program, about half of farms are paying below the minimum wage. Under the program, every farm has to raise the lowest wage to be in compliance with minimum wage based on the state,” Lambek said. “The total impact from the wage raise is close to $1 million. 

“But that’s a real undercount,” he added. “When you have to raise the lower wage, all the other wages have to go up as well. So the total impact of wage raises is likely much higher than that.”

“There is a ripple effect too,” Lambek continued. “Twenty percent of Vermont’s dairy industry are now giving raises. So farms outside the program need to raise wages, as well, to attract workers.”

If Hannaford joins the MWD program, dairy workers in Maine will also be able to receive these benefits.

“We want to expand the program to more farms and more states, and that’s why we’re in Maine,” Rameriz said. “But not just in Maine. We want the program, rights and protections to be given to all farmworkers.”

Photo: Milk With Dignity supporters protest outside a Hannaford grocery store, calling on the chain to adopt the higher labor standards for dairy workers. | Migrant Justice, Instagram

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Analysis: Opportunities abound as federal COVID relief funds flow into Maine counties

Fri, 10/22/2021 - 11:52

With an unprecedented amount of funds coming to Maine counties after the passage of the federal COVID-19 relief package earlier this year, the Maine Center for Economic Policy has issued guidance urging counties to partner with municipalities and nonprofits to ensure the money is used effectively to address unmet needs and reduce inequality.  

According to an analysis by MECEP released earlier this month, Maine’s counties in total will receive $261 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Counties have a deadline of 2024 to develop plans for spending the funds and until 2026 to actually use the money, the group reported.   

“Effective allocation of these funds will aid recovery, address inequities, and improve prospects for individuals and businesses. Most counties are currently accepting public comment from residents and community organizations on how these funds are used,” MECEP stated in its report.

However, according to MECEP, one issue is that Maine counties have “minimal capacity to implement programs.” As a result, the organization recommends that counties seek out other groups to make sure the money has the greatest impact possible. 

“ARPA funding will flow a huge amount of money into counties nationwide,” said Maura Pillsbury, the author of the report and a state & local tax policy analyst with MECEP. “In Maine, counties perform comparatively fewer functions, so it’s key for them to partner with local organizations and nonprofits to ensure these dollars go where they’re needed most — to people and communities hardest hit by the pandemic.”

The MECEP analysis includes a breakdown of what issue areas counties should focus COVID-19 relief funds on. The group urged counties to emphasize public health, need-based programs, grants to agencies for services like childcare and housing assistance, mitigation of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, payments to people with low and moderate incomes who struggled economically during the pandemic, and reductions of the jail population to address the harm caused by the virus in carceral settings. 

Specific initiatives MECEP recommended that counties prioritize include partnering with community organizations to encourage more people to get vaccinated and using money to fund recovery services and harm reduction programs amid the continued overdose crisis in Maine. 

The group also called for counties to focus on helping low-income Mainers by providing cash assistance, job training and other services — safety nets that are needed even more after expanded unemployment assistance ended in September. 

Amid Maine’s affordability crisis, MECEP added that counties should use funds to ensure increased access to housing and rental assistance. 

In addition, MECEP flagged that counties should emphasize expanding broadband access and affordability and supporting organizations addressing food insecurity. 

“Working with municipalities and nonprofit organizations to implement a plan that prioritizes households struggling most to recover from the pandemic and to invest in infrastructure that can support future connectivity and engagement will set the stage for a stronger, more durable recovery,” the group wrote.

Photo: A sign at a rally in June at the Maine State House | Evan Popp, Beacon 

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State officials open to examining childcare supports for Mainers getting vaccinated

Fri, 10/22/2021 - 07:03

As COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Maine continue, state health officials said at a media briefing Wednesday that they’re willing to look into programs to offer short-term childcare services so Mainers can more easily get inoculated and recuperate from the possible side effects of the shot.

Canvassers with the Maine People’s Resource Center, who are going door-to-door in Androscoggin and Penobscot counties to encourage Mainers to get vaccinated, reported recently that some people had mentioned childcare challenges as a reason why they were not yet inoculated. 

The Maine People’s Resource Center was founded by Maine People’s Alliance, of which Beacon is a project. 

Austin Witham, a canvasser with the group, said they heard from one father who felt he was too busy taking care of his kids to set up and go to a vaccine appointment. “The rest of his family [who were eligible] were vaccinated but it was just him not having the time to go do it himself,” Witham said. 

Abbie St. Valle, the vaccine program coordinator, added that canvassers “have talked to folks specifically in Lewiston that struggle to find childcare for their kids that would enable them to go to a vaccine clinic. Some other folks mentioned caring for sick members of their family and being unable to leave the house to get the vaccine.” 

At the briefing Wednesday, Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, expressed openness to examining potential childcare programs as a way of facilitating increased uptake of the vaccine. 

“I’m not aware of any one-day type of childcare supports that we offer for people who are having some sort of side effects or effects of the vaccine, but we’re certainly happy to look at it,” she said. 

Lambrew did note the department collaborates with local organizations that are organizing vaccine clinics to provide “stopgap temporary support” for people who are getting vaccinated as well as for those who have contracted COVID-19. The commissioner also said the state has been encouraging employers to provide paid leave for workers getting vaccinated so they can get to a clinic and recover after the shot.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, added that providing support systems for people to get vaccinated and for those who catch COVID-19 has been an ongoing challenge over the course of the pandemic but is something health officials are actively partnering with other organizations on. 

“We have been working with various community groups across the state of Maine to provide assistance and support in the specific situation outlined, child care and then if someone is feeling crummy after they get their shot,” he said. “But even more broadly, support during quarantine, during isolation. And as commissioner [Lambrew] noted, that’s something we can look at and see if there is more that needs to be done.” 

Concerns over access to vaccine appointments for parents comes as Maine’s childcare system faces myriad challenges, with House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) arguing at a recent press conference that, “Maine’s childcare workforce is at a tipping point.” 

At that mid-October event, Fecteau said the issue is particularly pervasive in rural areas of the state. Those regions also tend to have lower COVID-19 vaccination rates overall. 

“While 22% of Mainers live in a childcare desert, where there are more than three children for each available slot, it is even higher in rural communities, where the figure is 26%,” Fecteau said. “Without a solution, rural families bear the brunt of this issue.” 

Photo: Seattle Discovery Park Nature Preschool staff, Creative Commons via flickr

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MPA scorecard rates lawmakers on health care, tax fairness, criminal justice reform

Fri, 10/22/2021 - 06:38

The Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) released this week its annual legislative scorecard, rating state policymakers for their votes on legislation ranging from tax fairness measures, to expanding access to health care and housing, to racial equity among others.

“With a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both chambers, our state made historic and long-overdue investments in education, housing, the care economy, and our overall social safety net,” MPA’s summary of the first session of the 130th Legislature reads. “At the same time, significant progress was also made towards restoring some of the essential functions of state government that were eroded during the LePage administration.”

Gov. Janet Mills received a score of 50% on MPA’s top 10 priority bills. She vetoed key priorities such as a bill to close Long Creek youth prison, one that would have sent a question to voters about whether to establish a consumer-owned power utility to replace Central Maine Power and Versant, a bill that would have given tribes in Maine gaming rights, as well as six pro-worker bills, including one that would give workers more power to hold their employers accountable when they break the law.

Democratic legislative leaders rated higher than the governor. MPA scored Maine Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County) 79%, Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc County) 93%, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) 94% and Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) 100%.

“This year saw some real advances that will improve the lives of Mainers and their families, but there are many more urgent issues to address,” said MPA co-director Amy Halsted. “From rolling back LePage-era tax breaks for the wealthy to tackling our state’s affordable housing shortage to addressing the lack of Paid Family Medical Leave for Maine families, we will continue to push lawmakers to take action on pressing issues.”

Some of the major legislative accomplishments highlighted by MPA include extending dental coverage to some 200,000 low-income adults on Maine’s Medicaid program, as well as investing $20 million in new energy-efficient affordable housing built with strong labor standards, and making reforms to Maine’s broken unemployment system, which during the ongoing economic downturn left hundreds of laid-off workers waiting for months to receive support. 

In other areas, legislators made some progress, but didn’t fully rebuild the policies dismantled by former Gov. Paul LePage, such as expelling immigrants from the state’s Medicare rolls. Last session, lawmakers reinstated benefits to those under 21 and people who are pregnant, but fell short of returning the state to the pre-LePage era when all immigrants were included in MaineCare.

MPA also noted other instances where elected officials stood in the way of more transformative changes, such as tabling an omnibus bill that would recognize the sovereignty of tribes in Maine. 

“We missed key opportunities to lower prescription drug costs and electricity rates by taking power back from price-gouging drug companies and electric utilities,” the scorecard reads. “Also, although the Legislature and Governor Janet Mills finally funded the voter-mandated share of local education budgets and revenue sharing with municipalities, they did so by using federal funds, not by asking the wealthy and big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.”

The online scorecard allows readers to find their elected officials and see how they scored this session. 

In addition to listing the 31 lawmakers who received a perfect score, the scorecard also highlights the contributions of 27 “legislative champions,” which the organization describes as “those who went above and beyond to champion policies that bring us closer to being a state where everyone has what they need, contributes what they can and no one is left behind.”

Legislators who received a 100% score from MPA are:

Sen. Ben Chipman of Cumberland County

Rep. Poppy Arford of Brunswick

Rep. Arthur Bell of Yarmouth

Rep. Lydia Blume of York

Rep. Heidi Brooks of Lewiston

Rep. Mark Bryant of Windham

Rep. Benjamin Collings of Portland

Rep. Lynn Copeland of Saco

Rep. Lydia Crafts of Newcastle

Rep. Janice Dodge of Belfast

Rep. Traci Gere of Kennebunkport

Rep. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth

Rep. Thom Harnett of Gardiner

Rep. Christopher Kessler of South Portland

Rep. Grayson Lookner of Portland

Rep. Colleen Madigan of Waterville

Rep. Kristi Mathieson of Kittery

Rep. Joyce McCreight of Harpswell

Rep. Gina Melaragno of Auburn

Rep. Victoria Morales of South Portland

Rep. Margaret O’Neil of Scarborough

Rep. Laurie Osher of Orono

Rep. Sarah Pebworth of Blue Hill

Rep. Morgan Rielly of Westbrook

Rep. Melanie Sachs of Freeport

Rep. Suzanne Salisbury of Westbrook

Rep. Erin Sheehan of Biddeford

Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland

Rep. Denise Tepler of Topsham

Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell

Rep. Samuel Zager of Portland.

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Bates administration criticized for wading into staff unionization effort

Fri, 10/15/2021 - 09:15

In an October 12 email to staff and students, Bates College President Clayton Spencer announced that the Lewiston-based college will not stay silent during the ongoing unionionization effort on campus.

Adjunct faculty and staff at Bates announced on October 5 that they were attempting to unionize, citing low pay, poor working conditions and declining staff retention at the private liberal arts college as their reasons for organizing. Organizers said a “strong majority of contingent faculty“ had filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board the weekend prior. 

If the union drive succeeds, faculty and non-managerial staff will become a chapter of the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989 (which also represents Beacon staff), forming the Bates Educators and Staff Organization (BESO).

When workers at universities and colleges launch unionization drives, neutrality agreements are often signed. These are binding contracts between unions and employers that allow workers to organize in an environment free from anti-union campaigns and intimidation tactics. Bates management has expressed no intention of signing such an agreement.

“Every employee has the right to support or not support the union and to express their point of view. We will not tolerate or engage in interference with these rights, and we will respect the outcome of the election, whichever way it goes,” Spencer wrote in his October 12 email.

“The college will not, however, remain silent during this critical period, as has been urged by some faculty and other members of the community. No one can make an informed choice if they hear only one side of a story. That is simply not how deliberative processes or democratic elections work, particularly at an educational institution.” 

Bates administration’s decision to not remain neutral about the union drive has drawn criticism from alumni.

@BatesCollege sends an email refusing to remain neutral in @FriendsofBESO Union organizing,” Ryan Lizanecz, a Portland Charter Commission member and Bates Alumni, posted on Twitter. “Ashamed, quite frankly. Let the workers decide.”

Friends of Bates Educators and Staff (BESO), a group of Bates alumni and community members supporting adjunct faculty and staff forming the union, echoed Lizanecz disdain.

“Our community is saying it, students are saying it, elected leaders are saying it, workers are saying it: @batescollege LET THE WORKERS DECIDE to form their union free from intimidation and misinformation, which, contrary to college leaders’ claims, has not stopped,” BESO posted.

Henry Beck, Maine’s State Treasurer and a Colby College alumni, shared a similar sentiment yesterday on Twitter. 

“A quick note that I very much support the right of employees at Bates College to seek the protections of a union,” Beck posted. “Collective bargaining is key to growing economic security and a middle class here in Maine.”

Meanwhile, Bates students have expressed their support for the worker’s unionization effort. After the union drive was announced, students placed over 1,500 signs on campus urging students to support the union drive. “Educators & Staff: Students Support Your Union!” the signs read.

Prominent state lawmakers are also getting behind the Bates workers, urging the college to allow workers to organize without fear of retaliation.

“Lewiston has a long history of labor organizing going back to Maine workers fighting for better conditions in the textile mills. Today, Bates College employees are making the choice to form a collective voice to advocate for themselves and students,” House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) said. “All workers should have the right to make their choice free from intimidation.”

Photo: Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. | Treehouse Institute, Creative Commons via Flickr

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Podcast: The real ‘toxic’ politics in Portland

Thu, 10/14/2021 - 08:50

Cate, Esther and Mike discuss a conservative backlash to political progress in Maine’s largest city on the podcast this week, including the role of local media. They also discuss a scandal at the Boston Fed and how this shadowy but consequential government body can be made more responsive to the people it’s meant to serve.

Also: A report back on Indigenous People’s Day and an interview with MPA volunteer Amy Larkin.

Plus: Spooky Season and new contributors to Beacon.

Ask a question or leave a comment for a future show at (207) 619-3182.

Subscribe to the podcast feed right here using any podcasting app or subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

We’re also now occasionally streaming the podcast on video. You can follow us on YouTube or Facebook Live.

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