February 26, 2013

Competition fierce in Maine, even for low-wage jobs

A liberal advocacy organization's report stirs bipartisan calls for state policies to expand employment opportunities.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — More than half of the jobs currently open in Maine pay less than the $15.40 an hour a single adult needs to meet basic expenses such as food, housing and utilities, according to a report released by the Maine People's Alliance on Tuesday.

And, for every job opportunity that pays in that range, there are 11 Mainers competing for that job, the report said.

The report from the alliance, a liberal political advocacy and research organization, prompted calls by lawmakers from both parties for state policies to expand opportunities.

Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, who took part in the news conference at which the report was released, said the findings speak to the need for investments to create jobs that provide a real future. "We need to make sure our state assistance programs create pathways to prosperity and that we don't allow the current recession to damage the future of our state," she said.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, who also was part of the presentation, said lawmakers know they must do something to move Maine from "the bottom of the pack."

"We rank dead last in the country for personal income growth," Patrick said. "While in this day and age of post-recession, folks sure are thankful when they have a job, but we need to do more, we need to do better so that Mainers can provide for their families."

The Legislature's Joint Select Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future has spent the past four weeks looking at ways to renew partnerships between state government, business, education and workers.

During the recession, Maine saw the largest increase of any state in the nation of residents taking on multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, according to the federal Bureau of Labor.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport released a statement saying that Republicans and Democrats must work together to turn around a trend that has gone on for decades.

"First, we must make Maine a competitive place to attract new, high-paying jobs with lower energy costs, a better-trained workforce, and simpler regulations," Fredette said in the statement. "Second, we must help Mainers keep more money in their pockets with the jobs they have. That means lower health insurance costs, lower taxes, smaller utility bills, and more."

In Maine, the minimum wage is $7.50 an hour, or $15,600 a year. Maine's minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

President Obama has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 a hour, but that would still be below the amount seen as a "living wage" of $15.40 an hour for a single adult to cover housing, food, transportation and health care, the Maine People's Alliance report said.

A family of four, with both adults working, needs to make a combined $38.46 an hour to support basic needs, the report says. That equates to a gross annual income, with both adults' salaries combined, of roughly $80,000 a year.

The livable wage cited in the report is based on expenses for food, housing and utilities, transportation, household and personal expenses, child care, state and federal taxes and savings of 10 percent of income.

The wage cited in the report is higher than Maine's median income for a four-person family -- $71,237 a year, according to the U.S. Census -- and far above the federal poverty rate for a family of four -- $23,550.

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