State workers deliver over 1000 personal letters urging Gov. Mills to close state employee pay gap
Maine government workers delivered over 1,000 personal letters to Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday urging her to close the state employee pay gap and improve labor conditions — an action that comes as contract negotiations between the administration and the state workers union have dragged on for months without an agreement.
Before delivering the letters, workers unfurled a 53-foot-long general letter to Mills that outlined their issues with the current situation and that included the signatures of 1,080 state employees.
“We know you are aware that Maine state workers are fighting rising costs of living and inflation. We are struggling; many of us live paycheck to paycheck,” the letter reads.
“We respectfully ask that you take closing the pay gap seriously and to show it through your actions,” the letter continues. “Please direct your bargaining team to offer a wage proposal that closes the pay gap and ensures that we have appropriate staffing levels.”
More than a dozen workers participated in the action at Mills’ office, where they delivered their personal messages to a representative for the governor and chanted, “Hey Janet Mills, we can’t pay our bills,” and “Close the pay gap.”
Nov. 1 marked the fifth month employees in the executive branch of Maine state government have been working without a new bargaining agreement, according to the Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA), which represents state employees and organized the event at Mills’ office.
Mediation for ongoing contract negotiations was requested by the Mills administration in September after the state and MSEA remained hundreds of millions of dollars apart and divided on key sticking points.
In arguing for increased wages as part of a new contract, MSEA has pointed to a report from 2020 showing that state workers in Maine are paid 15% less on average for their work than their counterparts in the private and public sector across New England.
In a statement to Maine Morning Star after Thursday’s event, Sharon Huntley, a spokesperson for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, pointed to those pay increases, which she said amount to higher wage hikes than under previous administrations.
Huntley added that recommendations from another state worker compensation study are due to the legislature by the end of January. After that report is completed, the state will undergo a separate round of negotiations with workers based on the findings of that study, she said.
Huntley also noted that the Mills administration established paid parental leave for workers during negotiations that started in 2019, increased base pay to $15 an hour, and added longevity wage increases for employees who have worked with the state for over 10 years, among other steps to improve labor conditions.
Additionally, the legislature has provided up to $99 million for the state to negotiate with the union during collective bargaining — the largest ever allocation for that purpose, Huntley said. However, those funds will expire at the end of the year if negotiations are not completed by then, an outcome she said the Mills administration does not want to see.
“The administration’s goal is to increase wages to the greatest extent possible within our budgetary constraints, as established by the legislature, to ensure that workers are appropriately compensated and to remain competitive with the private sector,” Huntley said.
But MSEA members say the compensation increases provided by the state have not been enough to keep pace with inflation nor for state jobs to compete with pay in the private sector.
“Ultimately, for all of us who work for the state of Maine, the governor is our boss and we feel like she hasn’t really heard our pleas and she’s not fully understanding how desperate the situation has become,” said MSEA member Morgan Dunton, who works as an interdisciplinary instruction specialist at the Maine Department of Education. “We have colleagues who are facing eviction, who are having trouble just sustaining adequate housing. So first and foremost, we want her to understand what the actual workers in the state of Maine are experiencing.”
Another area of concern for MSEA — which represents more than 13,000 total active and retired workers — is staffing levels at state agencies. MSEA has pointed out that 1 in 6 state government positions are currently unfilled, adding up to over 2,100 vacant jobs. The union and its workers are calling for Mills to do more to fill those positions to ensure that state government has the resources to adequately serve Mainers.
Pointing to the $141 million budget surplus at the end of the 2023 fiscal year, state employees say there are sufficient funds to provide better pay and hire more employees. MSEA argues the surplus is in part the result of underpaying state workers and has also noted that Maine’s rainy day fund — meant to help the state weather economic downturns — has reached an all-time high.
Frank Jenkins, eligibility specialist at Department of Health and Human Services and an MSEA member, said that extra money means there’s no excuse for not adequately paying workers.
“This is one of the best governors we’ve had in my lifetime and I know she has a surplus,” Jenkins said. “I’d like to say on behalf of my coworkers: ‘Show me the money.’”
Another state worker, Erik Gordon, said it’s telling that so many people sent their own personal messages and signed the general letter to Mills.
“The messages that we brought forth to the administration’s bargaining team are that state workers are struggling, we’ve continued to fall behind more and more over the years and that we need relief and we need it now,” he said.
“I think it’s important that the state look in the mirror and try to become a competitive employer once again,” he added. “Because right now they’re not a competitive employer.”