By Rep. Andrew O’Brien, D-Lincolnville
December 5, 2011
Four years ago, I faced one of the most difficult times in my life. I had recently moved back to Maine, put a deposit down for an apartment, and was actively searching for a job. I spent every day searching help wanted ads, meticulously filling out job applications, tweaking cover letters, and visiting the Career Center to use the fax and printer. Like the many job-seekers in our state, being unemployed was more than a full time job. It was also a humiliating and demoralizing experience. I had a college degree, I had worked for several years as a teacher overseas and I couldn't figure out what I needed to do to find a position that could pay the bills.
I wasn't picky. I eventually found a series of temporary, seasonal, part time, and per diem positions working on an assembly line, doing custodial work, shoveling snow, working as a receptionist, raking blueberries, painting houses, and mowing lawns. None of it was consistent, most of it paid very low wages and I found myself drawing off my savings to get by.
That’s why I recently wrote an open letter to the Governor concerning inaccurate and derogatory remarks he has continually made about the unemployed. In comments back in November to a group of business owners, Governor Paul LePage said, "We have got to convince those who can work that we need to get them back to work. Quite frankly, I think that might be a sign that we're paying them a bit too much when they're at home not working." The Governor has not been alone in making this assessment. Last week in the Bangor Daily News, Peter Gore from the Maine Chamber of Commerce made similar comments.
I want to make clear that my intent in raising this issue is not simply to criticize insensitive remarks about a vulnerable population of people. It is also to let desperate job seekers know that they have nothing to be ashamed of because what we are facing is a structural problem in our economy. We are not facing a "lazy crisis" in this state, we have a jobs crisis. With 31,000 jobs listed in the state job bank and at least 51,000 searching for work, there simply are not enough jobs to fill the demand at this time. The result is a highly competitive game of musical chairs.
With all attention on so-called "job creators," or folks with enough money to build a businesses and hire people, we often forget that there are two sides of the coin. Last Saturday a group of unemployed workers and I met with Governor Lepage for an hour and a half. In my conversation with the Governor, he placed much of the blame on "regulations." In his view, our state’s labor standards and environmental protections are not making us competitive with other states. When I asked if he thought the lack of employment opportunities was unique to Maine, he admitted that it was a nationwide problem and contrasted what he perceived as our "over regulated" business environment in the US to China, where there is higher employment and plenty of manufacturing jobs.
I explained that I had lived in Asia and had heard first-hand about the terrible working conditions in the outsourced factories there. I had interviewed and reported on guest workers who suffered brutal violence and deportation for trying to negotiate safe working conditions, shorter hours and a fair wage, after experiencing workplace injuries, unpaid overtime, and a form of debt slavery after having their monthly earnings garnished to pay off exorbitant loans to unscrupulous brokers affiliated with the company. The struggle for workplace fairness in America came through hard-fought battles won over the past 100 years. A race to the bottom may make our country competitive for a third world standard of living, but it will not bring back middle class jobs with middle class wages.
During the last year Republicans in the Legislature voted to roll back child labor laws, introduced a measure to undercut the minimum wage by creating a “training wage,” and pushed for a law to prevent the rights of workers to organize. These kinds of proposals won’t create jobs; rather, they have taken Maine in the wrong direction. Instead, lawmakers should be focused on creating jobs, improving the economy, and training our workforce for the jobs of the future.
In spite of our disagreements on a range of issues, the Governor and I were able to find common ground in a number of areas like education, job training and helping the disabled into the workforce. I’m pleased the governor finally agreed to meet with unemployed Mainers.
More importantly, we opened a public discussion on an issue that is never far from ordinary Maine people's minds, whether they are unemployed or just worried about their economic future. I think most people will agree that policy makers owe it to their constituencies to look at both sides of the coin and do what's best for all citizens.