January 5, 2012

Unions balk at bills to tighten benefits

But the GOP sponsors say it's time to stop abuses and improve the business climate so companies will locate here.

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

AUGUSTA — Jamie Bassett of Jefferson got hurt on the job 16 years ago and has collected workers' compensation benefits ever since.

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David Slagger, accompanied by his wife, Priscilla, left, greets Gov. Paul LePage after the Kenduskeag lawmaker was sworn in at the State House as Maine’s first Maliseet Indian legislator. Two of Maine’s four tribes – the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies – had already been represented in the Legislature. Now, with Slagger standing for the Houlton Band of Maliseets, only the Micmacs remain unrepresented.

Photos by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

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Maine Senate President Kevin Raye uses the gavel at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday, the first day of the 125th Legislature’s second session.

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The former Maine State Prison guard is 50 now, he's had more than one back surgery and says he lives in constant pain. He was at the State House on Wednesday to speak out against L.D. 1571, which would limit the amount of time that Mainers can collect workers' comp benefits.

"The injured who have to depend on these benefits are not the problem," he said during a news conference. "If you've ever thought about the saying of 'kicking a person when they're down,' well, this is it."

That bill and two others have been targeted by labor groups as priorities in this legislative session. As the session opened Wednesday, about 100 union workers lobbied in the State House hallways, held a news conference and delivered hundreds of postcards to Gov. Paul LePage's office.

"Do what we sent you here to do," said Joel Pitcher, also of Jefferson, who works as a structural fitter at Bath Iron Works. "That's fix the economy and create jobs."

A year after major labor battles in other states -- most notably Wisconsin -- the Maine AFL-CIO and other labor organizations are gearing up to oppose legislation that they describe as anti-labor.

Republicans who are proposing the legislation say it's time to target benefits, crack down on people who abuse them and work to lower costs in Maine so businesses will want to locate here.

It has been 20 years since the state considered meaningful reforms to its workers' compensation system, said Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the sponsor of the workers' comp bill. Maine has had the eighth-highest rates in the country, although two rate reductions have been announced by the system recently.

Cushing said Maine would have a better chance of landing large employers if they knew the rates would be competitive with those in other states. Among other things, his bill would stop two practices: allowing retirees to keep collecting benefits, and allowing people who suffer non-work-related injuries while they are receiving benefits to keep getting payments.

"There are proposals in (L.D. 1571) to cap the amount of time people can receive benefits," he said. "That's not to say everyone's benefits will end in a year or two."

The most controversial of the labor bills is L.D. 309, which would end the practice of requiring state employees who aren't in unions to pay a portion of union dues. The bill was held over from last year's session after a contentious public hearing.

LePage has been a vocal supporter of L.D. 309, saying it's not right to force some state workers to contribute to unions they didn't choose to join.

Unions say that because the contracts they negotiate cover all workers, regardless of whether they are members, it's not fair if some workers don't contribute.

While some union members at the State House on Wednesday held posters that said "Stop the War on Workers" and "Jobs, Not Attacks," LePage issued a statement saying he's trying to lower the cost of government to help the working class.

"We're trying to protect the working people of Maine who only earn 82 percent of national average in wages yet are paying for welfare benefits far above the national average," he said in the statement. "Working people need a break."

The third bill identified by organized labor as a concern is sponsored by Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston. L.D. 1725 would require people to broaden their search for work after six weeks of unemployment, rather than the current 12 weeks, add vacation pay to the items that offset benefits, and increase penalties for people who get back on unemployment after being disqualified for misconduct.

"The intention is to be sure legitimate claims are paid legitimately to legitimate filers," said Rector, whose bill was written by the Department of Labor to tighten regulations on unemployment insurance benefits. "We want to be sure the people who are collecting are doing their darnedest to find a new job."

Tim Boynton, who lost his job last year when Associated Grocers of Maine closed its Gardiner warehouse, said unemployment benefits "have been a godsend to me."

"I ask the Legislature and the governor, please do not do anything to weaken the unemployment benefits," he said. "Focus on jobs, not hurting those without jobs."

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

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Matt Caston, left, and Charlie Urquhart, representing the labor group Working America,deliver a wheelbarrow loaded with postcards Wednesday to Gov. Paul LePage’s office.

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Kevin Rhein directs the Messalonskee High School Chamber Singers on Wednesday morning at the State House in Augusta. The 30 singers from the Oakland school sang the national anthem on the first day of the 125th Legislature’s 2012 session.

 


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