AUGUSTA — State worker Dean Staffieri told lawmakers Monday that caseworkers, clerks and others he works with can’t afford a continuation of a freeze in their merit pay — a term referring to step increases that recognize job experience.

“I ask you, today, to please consider the people who are hurting, the people who make significantly less than those doing the same jobs in the private sector, the people who make sure that the fine state of Maine continues to function,” said Staffieri, a licensed social worker in the Office of Child and Family Services.

Staffieri was one of about a dozen state workers or union representatives who testified in opposition to two elements of Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget: a continuation of a merit pay freeze put in place two years ago, and the reinstatement of a freeze on pay increases related to years of service.

Those two parts are estimated to save $12.6 million over the two-year period. Unlike his predecessor, LePage is not proposing that state workers be required to take unpaid days off, nor is he proposing a large number of layoffs.

Merit pay increases affect employees mostly in their first seven years of work because the state has a seven-tiered step system, Staffieri said. The freeze means that employees cannot advance to a higher tier of pay.

On the other end of the spectrum, longevity pay begins after 15 years of service and gives workers an increase in their hourly wage based on years of service, he said.

Workers argued Monday that the pay freezes were particularly unfair given the proposed changes that would require them to contribute an additional 2 percent of their pay to the retirement system.

“Nothing is getting any cheaper for those of us that work for the state,” said Cordell Hackett, a Department of Transportation worker.

Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett said he did not want to continue the merit and longevity pay freezes, but the administration needed to save money somehow.

“If we had been able to get to a balanced budget without this, I would have preferred that,” he said.

The Legislature froze the longevity payments in 2009, which prompted the Maine State Employees Association to sue the state, arguing that the freeze discriminated against older workers. The suit was dropped when the state reinstated the payments in 2010, said Bruce Hodsdon, president of the MSEA.

Although Hodsdon testified in opposition to the pay freezes, he also opposed a proposal in the budget that books $25 million in savings in the second year without identifying the source. The budget proposes to set up an 11-member commission that would be charged with finding the savings.

He said Gov. Angus King tried something similar in 1996.

“The King administration’s Productivity Task Force created stress and anxiety for a lot of Maine people,” he said. “They wondered if the services that they and their families count on were going to be eliminated.”

Millett said he knows it will be difficult for the group, most of whom will be appointed by the governor, to find additional areas to cut.

“To get to $25 million between now and next January, everything will be on the table,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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