Coming together for Maine’s workers

By Senator Russell Black

Sen. Russell Black – Franklin

With the way that politics are nowadays, you frequently hear stories about our country’s political parties at odds over social policies, tax rates, budgets and even economic strategies.

Far too often, national stories portray the political divide between Republicans and Democrats in Washington as a polarized chasm, an abyss so ideologically partisan and deeply tribalistic that it can never be bridged by discourse.

But what we see more often between lawmakers here in our state is the true dedication we have to Maine’s people. We witnessed that just recently when I and several of my fellow colleagues learned about the plans to close the Department of Health and Human Services’ call center in Wilton.

When Rep. Randall Hall (R-Wilton), Rep. Scott Landry (D-Farmington) and I first learned from employees at the center that DHHS planned to relocate their jobs to Lewiston, we immediately leaped into action. Engaging Wilton Selectperson Tom Saviello as well as the Maine State Employees Association, we began efforts to find out not only what was happening, but why such a decision had been made and what steps we could take to avoid the closure.

First, some background.

The DHHS call center opened in 2019 at the Department of Labor’s Career Center on Route 2 after the closure of Barclays’ call center in Wilton, which resulted in the loss of over 200 jobs in the Franklin County area in March 2019. The DHHS center’s purpose is to support the state’s MaineCare program, and employees there have also assisted with the state’s contact tracing efforts in the past.

In mid-January, the decision to close the office and relocate those employees to Androscoggin County had been made and announced to its employees. Citing overcrowding at the office and a lengthy list of building issues that needed to be addressed, DHHS ultimately determined that the easier path was to end the lease and move on.

Fortunately, our delegation disagreed.

Instead, we were adamant about keeping the center open to save the 40-plus jobs there. With long commute times to Lewiston amid increasingly higher fuel costs and the additional child care expenses those employees would incur, we felt the stakeholders — the state, the union, its members and our delegation — could come together to craft a solution.

If we didn’t, those who couldn’t relocate or work remotely with strict confidential space requirements were facing termination. Those who could would lose more ground than they already have financially with today’s high energy prices and inflation.

If you’ve paid attention to how politics actually work, especially here at the state and local levels, the process worked exactly the way it was supposed to. It wasn’t a “rare” instance when all the stars surreptitiously aligned to bring together the most unlikely cast of characters. Instead, it was Maine people looking out for Maine people.

Ultimately, our Franklin County delegation — with the help of Wilton’s town government, the union and the Mills administration — was able to find a compromise that allowed most of the employees to stay right where they are.

If we don’t take the responsibility to come together to look out for Maine’s people, who will? That’s why we were elected and, regardless of party, it’s why we’re here to serve. In the end, we came together and protected our rural workers.

It’s what we’re supposed to do.

Senator Russell Black is in his second term in the Maine Senate and represents District 17. He is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife committees.

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