March 5, 2013

State workers push for pay raises in wake of Millet's, Saufley's comments

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Dawn Kliphan, of Manchester, said the proposed state budget would cut her paycheck by $24 per pay period, a reduction that comes on the heels of four years without a raise.

click image to enlarge

Dawn Kliphan, of Manchester, speaks during a news conference, held by the Maine State Employees Association, on Tuesday in the Cultural Building atrium in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Union president Ginette Rivard speaks during a news conference, held by the Maine State Employees Association, on Tuesday in the Cultural Building atrium in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

An employee of the state Department of Education, Kliphan used vacation time Tuesday to speak at a press conference where the Maine State Employees Association called on budget Commissioner Sawin Millett and the Legislature to stand up for state workers.

"We need a raise," Kliphan said. "Hands off our health care, and restore the merit and longevity pay. That's how to solve the recruitment and retention problems that the state of Maine is experiencing."

The union, which represents about 10,000 state workers, is seizing on recent comments made by Millett and Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley in which both talked about the difficulties faced by state workers.

Millett was quoted by the Bangor Daily News as saying the state has "fallen behind in our ability to send a positive message to employees, driven by inadequate resources and the inability to make that kind of gesture not just at the bargaining table, but in day-to-day decisions. We're sitting on some very valued employees who haven't seen a raise in, in some cases, four years."

And Saufley, while delivering her State of the Judiciary Address to lawmakers, thanked judicial branch employees for their hard work, noting that they too have not received raises in recent years.

"Similar to all state employees, the employees of the judicial branch have been without any increase in compensation for over four years," she said. "Every successful organization recognizes that its success depends on productive people. People need to know that their hard work is valued."

The union and the state have also been unable to come to an agreement on a new contract. The contract expired in June 2011, and both sides are now using a mediator to negotiate.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Millett acknowledged the difficult budget choices that led to the continued merit pay freeze and longevity pay suspension that are projected to save more than $12 million over two years.

There are 6,000 state workers affected by the merit pay freeze and 3,000 affected by longevity pay, according to union officials.

"I value the service of our state employees," Millett said. "However, in the face of revenue shortfalls and budget cuts, an additional appropriation of $12 million is a difficult burden to place on hardworking Maine taxpayers. We are fortunate to have many dedicated employees, and it is my hope that we can provide increased financial incentives to these valued state employees through the collective bargaining process."

Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said while trying to balance the budget, the governor decided to continue the merit freeze that had been in effect under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. And she said longevity pay is a reward for "hitting a number" and is not based on performance.

The governor has set aside $250,000 in the budget for professional development for state workers and $8 million for a salary plan increase that is currently tied up because of the failure to negotiate a new contract, Bennett said.

"At a time when we're all cutting back, state government is not excluded," she said. "What the administration has tried to do is right-size government. We've been able to do that without major layoffs."

The union made its request as the Appropriations Committee prepares to begin hearings on the proposed state budget next week. The $6.2 billion, two-year budget proposes to continue the merit and longevity freezes, cuts social service programs at the Department of Health and Human Services, and proposes to send no state revenue sharing money to cities and towns for two years.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said lawmakers are just now beginning to enter "an extremely difficult budget season."

"I can certainly understand the desire of so many hardworking state employees to move to restore longevity and merit pay," he said. "Certainly in the long run with employee retention, people need to see a pathway toward self-improvement. Whether we can make a stab at that this session or not, is yet to be seen."

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, is sponsoring a bill — which has yet to be printed — to restore merit and longevity pay. Cain, a member of the Appropriations Committee, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Department of Labor employee Jim Betts, of Winthrop, said it's routine for him and others in the department to work 60 hour weeks. He's seen people quit while they are still being trained because the jobs don't pay enough. "Supervisors are in a perpetual state of interviews, hiring and training," he said. "All of the workers hired in the last four years are still at starting pay."

 

Susan Cover — 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com

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