There’s a shift happening, and you may not even know it

Senator Russell Black delivers this week’s Republican Radio Address

By Senator Russell Black

Sen. Russell Black – Franklin

AUGUSTA – The past few months have been troubling for Maine workers. From vaccine mandates and workplace fatigue because of workforce shortages to inflation and sky-high fuel and energy price pressures at home, Maine’s workers have never been under such stress as they are today.

Hello, I’m Senator Russell Black of Franklin County, and it’s my pleasure to bring you this week’s Republican Radio Address.

Last week, I learned that the Department of Health and Human Services wanted to close its call center in Franklin County. The closure, announced through a letter to the center’s employees in mid-January, is expected to affect about 45 jobs in the Wilton area.

The call center, which began after Barclays left Wilton and took over 200 jobs with it, fields inquiries about eligibility for DHHS programs, including MaineCare and the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs. Employees were also assisting with COVID-19 contact tracing.

But despite their contributions in helping Maine’s residents through the pandemic, employees were told they had few options. They could either work from home or relocate to the DHHS office in Lewiston. The only problem for many of them is that the office is over an hour away, and others don’t have the reliable broadband or required dedicated confidential space to work from home.

In essence, DHHS employees making $16.03 an hour would have to incur additional childcare expenses, extra fuel costs and more commuting time in order to just keep their jobs. Otherwise, they would be left unemployed. What does that say about the “state of” the state taking care of its employees?

To her credit, Gov. Janet Mills said expanding efforts to bolster Maine’s rural workforce and local economies are very important to her. In fact, she was just miles away at the University of Maine in neighboring Farmington unveiling a new childhood and early learning center the same day when the news broke about the Wilton call center closing.

Talk about bad timing – unfortunately for her, DHHS apparently didn’t get the memo. Instead, they went out of their way to directly contradict her message, showing there is clearly a lack of communication and cohesive strategy in this administration.

This week, I tried to introduce legislation that would save the call center. The Resolve, LR 2639, would direct DHHS to keep the call center in Wilton open and was supported by the Maine Service Employees Association and my fellow Republican colleagues. The union even asked its members to write their legislators to support the bill. Imagine that, the state employees union siding with Republicans in an effort to keep its members on the job.

But what happened? The bill was tabled by Senate President Troy Jackson, which was kind of surprising that the President didn’t support state workers. He said they were working on other “avenues,” but maybe it would have been better to let my bill move forward to give the employees some assurance that we were looking out for them. Instead, he and his colleagues found it better to table the bill. I think that was probably a bad idea.

And that is just part of a changing landscape that has been taking place not only here in Maine, but also across the country. Republicans have been backing workers at every turn for years. And we have been at the forefront of protecting workers’ rights, whether it’s battling burdensome work rules and employment requirements or something as simple as keeping a dam in place or a call center open.

It’s clear that Gov. Mills and DHHS were not on the same page. It’s also clear that Democratic Leadership are losing their connection to the labor community. Unfortunately, both circumstances don’t bode well for our rural workforce that needs more support from Augusta to survive and thrive. From economic initiatives and workforce investments to supporting the rural communities across our state, we need to make sure there are opportunities for Maine’s rural workforce.

We also need to make sure we don’t take those opportunities away.

Again, I’m Senator Russell Black of Franklin County, and I hope you have a great weekend.

Senator Russell Black is in his second term in the Maine Senate and represents District 7. He is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife committees.

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