Senate Republicans offer sweeping legislation to stabilize plunging workforce participation and reform welfare

Proposed legislation and policy solutions range from tightening Maine’s welfare system by implementing work requirements to labor and unemployment practices
Sen. Eric Brakey (center) talks about welfare reforms that were unveiled during a press briefing held by Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Included in the reforms were changes to residency requirements for General Assistance, work requirements for those receiving certain MaineCare benefits, and unemployment changes.

AUGUSTA – Senate Republicans unveiled sweeping legislation during a press briefing on Tuesday, Feb. 7, to help combat the increasing number of unfilled jobs across the state. The “Getting Maine Back to Work” initiative is in response to data from the Maine Department of Labor that showed the State’s labor participation rate plunged to its lowest level ever in December 2022.

The ratio, defined as the number of those who are employed or looking for a job as a percentage of the population aged 16 and older, declined for a sixth straight month as enrollment in Medicaid – known in Maine as MaineCare – has risen to almost 400,000 residents, or nearly one out of every three Mainers.

“When I look at the Legislature and when I look at the priorities here, we really have a tale of two priorities – paychecks or welfare checks,” Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Androscoggin, said during the press briefing.

Brakey said when MaineCare was expanded in 2019, Maine’s unemployment rate stood at 2.6% and the labor force participation rate was 62.5%. Today, those figures stand at 3.8% and 57.9% respectively, the latter of which has dropped lower than the 58.1% record low point seen at the height of the Mills Administration’s government-forced shutdown in April 2020.

He noted that the expansion of MaineCare to able-bodied working adults without kids hasn’t helped the labor force situation since work requirements were dropped by both the Mills and Biden administrations. Consequently, there is no incentive for those receiving benefits to get back to work so his solution is to put work requirements back in place for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and MaineCare welfare programs.

“Our unemployment rate is higher than it was then and our workforce participation rate has fallen significantly, well below the national average,” he said. “We believe it is time to put this into statute that for able-bodied working adults without dependents for SNAP, for Medicaid and for General Assistance that there be a requirement that you work, volunteer or do job training to remain eligible for these programs.”

In addition to MaineCare’s expansion, Brakey said those who are currently working and receiving benefits may limit their income potential due to the requirement that if you make over a certain amount, all benefits are forfeited. Senate Republican Leader Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, agreed and said the goal should be lifting people out of poverty instead of trapping them in a never-ending cycle.

“Getting these people out of poverty and onto a path of self-sufficiency and success, frankly, that’s what Republicans are prioritizing,” he said. “Now’s the time to … make sure that government isn’t getting in the way of that, that we’re creating a pathway to success for these folks that doesn’t involve them staying on what were intended to be temporary programs to help people out in a pinch that have ended up going from a safety net into a hammock.”

Senate Republicans also unveiled legislation that aims to tighten the unemployment system. Included in the proposals was a bill from Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Penobscot, that gives employers access to a portal to report those who don’t show up for job interviews. Known as “ghosting,” she said the issue is affecting employers who schedule interviews for job seekers who are satisfying unemployment search requirements only to see those people never show.

“Employers statewide have talked to me about this. I’m a small business owner. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the office to do an interview and had the person not show up,” said Guerin. “This is not only hurting the small business owners, this is hurting Maine people who need services.”

Stewart said he’s also introduced legislation to adjust the term of unemployment benefits to market conditions. Currently, those who lose employment can apply for up to 26 weeks of benefits, which he said was too long given the current job environment.

“This is the best environment for a worker, an employee to go and get a job that’s going to be paying at a higher wage. That doesn’t make any sense, not in this environment at least,” he said of the six-month duration. “Another proposal we have coming from the Senate Republican Caucus is to index unemployment benefits with market conditions and what’s actually happening in the real world.”

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