AUGUSTA — This holiday season, working Mainers are still struggling to get by. Despite robust returns on Wall Street, workers aren’t sharing in recent gains.

This is part of a long-term trend that began more than 30 years ago. People who depend on their labor to earn a living are increasingly being left behind, and the Great Recession of 2007-2009 has only made matters worse.

The Maine Center for Economic Policy recently completed its periodic assessment, “The State of Working Maine.” It shows that nearly five years after the end of the Great Recession, workers in Maine and across the nation remain in crisis.

By most measures, Maine’s jobs and unemployment situation is disappointing. The official unemployment rate of 6.7 percent is down from its peak in early 2010, but is still well above pre-recession unemployment rates that ranged from 4 to 5 percent.

Looking beyond the snapshot that the monthly employment reports provide, U.S. Department of Labor data show that on average over the past 12 months, 49,400 Mainers were unemployed and actively searching for work. An additional 52,000 had recently left the labor force altogether or were working part-time because they couldn’t find full-time work or stopped looking altogether. Maine has recovered just 9,900 of the 29,100 payroll jobs lost as a result of the recession, and more than one-third of Maine’s unemployed workers have been without a job for more than six months.

Even if they have a job, far too many Mainers find their paychecks are not enough to support them and their families.

Too often, households even with more than one earner struggle to provide food, housing and clothes for the kids, with little or nothing left to set aside for the future; to send their children to college; to further their own education or job skills; and to realize the American dream of homeownership, a comfortable retirement and a better future for their kids.

Wages for the poorest fifth of Mainers have been flat for the past 34 years. Wage growth for the median Maine worker began to stagnate in the late 1980s. The wage of the typical (median) Maine worker didn’t grow at all over the past decade and has grown by less than a dollar since 1990.

Meanwhile, the highest wage earners have enjoyed relatively steady wage growth over the past 30-plus years. The top 10 percent of wage and salary earners experienced a 12.4 percent increase in real wages between 2002 and 2012.

Wages and incomes are also not keeping pace with the growth in productivity or the growth of the overall economy. Worker productivity in Maine has increased by 52 percent over the past 30 years, but worker compensation has grown by only 28 percent.

Nationwide, the share of the nation’s economic output accruing to labor has fallen from more than 64 percent in the early 1980s to about 58 percent now. Corporate profits are at all-time highs, and the stock market has boomed in the wake of the recession, but the wealthiest 10 percent of the population owns 80 percent of all stock wealth.

Prospects for people at the bottom, those earning the minimum wage, are not getting better. Currently, Maine’s minimum wage is $7.50 an hour, well below the inflation-adjusted 1968 Maine minimum wage of $9.06 an hour.

Last year, Gov. LePage vetoed legislation to raise Maine’s minimum wage to $9 an hour over the course of three years and automatically adjust it to inflation in the future.

The average worker currently making less than $9 an hour would have received an annual raise of $1,100, and the bill would have raised the wages of 66,000 Maine workers by a total of $48 million.

While many well-meaning opponents fear that raising the minimum wage will result in job losses, the balance of real-world empirical research shows that such modest increases in the minimum wage have, at most, modest impacts on employment levels.

The Great Recession officially ended in 2009, but Maine’s workers have yet to be swept into the economic recovery. Improving the state of working Maine will require that policymakers take decisive steps to reduce unemployment, ramp up job training and education and ensure that steady income growth isn’t reserved for an elite few. The workers who power our economy have gone too long without a raise. 

— Special to the Press Herald