AUGUSTA — Waiting in long lines to get your driver’s license renewed, as many Mainers did this summer, is just one sign of a government workforce crisis that has state and local officials scrambling to hire staff at a time of record low unemployment.

Waits as long as three hours in Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices last month were among the most visible, and annoying, signs of the state’s public labor crunch. But other state and local agencies have large and growing gaps in their staffs, prompting some to boost wages or offer other incentives to hire new workers or lure back former ones.

Vacancies are widespread and hundreds of jobs, including important positions such as state crime lab scientists, are going unfilled. Many state employees say they feel overworked and underpaid, and more than half said in a recent survey that they may leave state service.

The impacts on citizens range from the inconvenience of waiting in long lines to get licenses or permits, to the potential for less frequently plowed roads and slower response times for emergency workers.

Some have tied an inadequate state workforce to the death of children who were supposed to have been monitored by caseworkers with the Department of Health and Human Services.

In all, the state has about 1,500 open positions, 13 percent of the government’s workforce, said Finance Commissioner Kristen Figueroa.

She said rebuilding that workforce so that Maine citizens get the public services they need and expect is a top priority of Gov. Janet Mills.

Maine’s statewide unemployment rate has been below 4 percent for over three years, the longest period on record. That mirrors the national trend, which is affecting private sector businesses across the economy.

People wait for their numbers to be called at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Portland on Aug. 30. The bureau is experiencing extra long wait times for many reasons, including an employee shortage. Staff Photo by Brianna Soukup

However, unlike the private sector, state government spending is overseen by the Legislature and cannot be as nimble as the private sector when it comes to solutions such as better pay and benefits, Figueroa said.

And given political pressures to keep taxes down and government small at every level, the workforce challenge extends beyond Augusta to municipalities across the state that also are hunting for skilled workers.

To combat the problem at the state level, Maine’s Legislature passed a law to review the state’s compensation and job classification system, parts of which haven’t changed for 40 years, Figueroa said. Some entry-level state jobs pay so little that the state can’t fill the positions without violating its own minimum wage law, she said.

“The last time a comprehensive review was done, we found we were 45 percent off, in some areas, from what was being paid in the private sector,” Figueroa said.  What lawmakers will ultimately do with the findings of the review due to the Legislature next year is unclear.

Figueroa stopped short of criticizing former Republican Gov. Paul LePage for compounding the labor shortage with hiring freezes and other constraints on bringing new state workers on board, including a policy requiring all new hires for the state to be approved by the governor himself. LePage worked to reduce the size of state government to cut costs and lower taxes, although critics say he went too far in many cases.

Alec Maybarduk, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, the largest union of state and municipal workers in Maine, with about 13,000 members, was unabashed in his analysis of how LePage made a big problem even bigger.

“The state has not done nearly enough to remain competitive,” Maybarduk said. “For eight years the state simply refused to adequately increase wages to keep up with the rising cost of living.”

Maybarduk said even before LePage took office, leaders in Augusta were aware that state workers were being paid well below their counterparts in the private sector. Now, he said, state jobs that had long been taken for granted are being noticed.

“Because when something goes wrong, everybody suddenly realizes how critical the services provided by state employees actually are,” he said.

Maybarduk said the most tragic examples of that were the highly publicized deaths of two children – Kendall Chick in 2017 and Marissa Kennedy in 2018 – who fell through the cracks of the DHHS understaffed child protective system, which failed to follow its own policies and procedures meant to keep children safe.

In the wake of the tragedies, LePage’s administration submitted legislation to add 18 new child protective workers to the system. Since then, the Legislature and Mills have added more than 60 positions to the agency, including front-line staff as well as other workers to process reports of abuse while keeping better track of paperwork.

Maybarduk said a survey of union workers just last year showed that state workers are increasingly discouraged with their employment. He said 83 percent said their departments had ongoing recruitment and retention problems, 63 percent said their departments were insufficiently staffed, 59 percent said they were considering leaving state service and 58 percent said they felt like they couldn’t handle the increasing volume of work they were being assigned.

Maine Department of Transportation workers Payson Wiers, left, and Richard Roscoe stand at a job site in North Yarmouth on Sept. 6. Wiers has worked for the transportation department for 25 years and Roscoe has two years on the job. Many state employees say they feel overworked and underpaid, and more than half said in a recent survey that they may leave state service.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

At the local level, cities and towns can’t find enough firefighters, police officers or emergency medical technicians, meaning that systems meant to protect public safety are fraying at the edges. Shortages of 911 operators are so pronounced that the Legislature passed a law allowing those with enough time in service to join the state’s retirement system as an additional incentive to keep their ranks full.

Maine’s struggle may be more pronounced because of its unique demographic status of being the oldest state in the nation, with half the state’s population older than 44.6 years and more workers heading for retirement than at the start of their careers.

Eric Conrad, with the Maine Municipal Association, which includes more than 400 town and city governments in the state, said officials have taken to calling the problem of an aging workforce that’s not being replaced quickly enough “a silver tsunami.”

Conrad says the issue is the top problem for municipal governments. “And it’s not going to go away anytime soon and it’s not going to be easy to solve,” he said.

The association is also taking aim at the problem by trying to showcase local government jobs and make potential workers more aware of their options, using websites and videos featuring workers who are choosing government careers over the private sector.

While Maine’s aging population is an added challenge, the state is far from alone as states across the nation are struggling with similar problems.

Local officials nationwide are finding it increasingly difficult to fill government positions, according to a survey this year by the National Center for State and Local Government Excellence, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works with government agencies at attracting and retaining a quality workforce.

The  survey of 335 human resource officials in governments across the country found that 32 percent were struggling to fill police officer jobs, up from 15 percent in 2015, and the same was true with hard-to-fill positions from engineers to skilled laborers.

At Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, there are 42 vacancies, including 25 at the headquarters in Augusta and another 17 in the bureau’s various branch offices, said Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

The problem became painfully obvious this summer, as customers at some locations were waiting longer than three hours to process license applications, renewals or motor vehicle registrations. Those wait times have not improved significantly in recent weeks as new workers are still in the hiring and training pipeline, Muszynski said this week.

Another highly visible part of state government in Maine, the Department of Transportation, has faced chronic worker shortages for years and struggled to hire the people who maintain Maine’s highways and bridges, and clear snow from roads and highways. Department-wide, there are more than 270 vacancies with about 170 of those in the department’s front-line maintenance and operations division.

The department recently took steps to keep its workers happy, largely by paying them more money, said David Bernhardt, the former transportation commissioner who now directs the maintenance and operations division. One especially hot category, workers with a commercial drivers license, are being paid an extra $2 an hour in northern Maine, bumping them to $16 an hour to start, while southern Maine drivers are being paid an additional $3.50 an hour or a $17.50-per-hour starting wage.

On top of that, Bernhardt said a bonus of $1,000 for drivers who work a whole plow season has been effectively increased to as much as $2,000. While some drivers have moved from north to south to take advantage of the higher pay, the strategy appears to be working, Bernhardt said.

“We are seeing double to triple the amount of applicants,” he said. “We are also seeing many more of those applicants coming in already holding a (commercial driver’s license).” He said the department is in the process of hiring 63 new transportation workers and another 30 workers on the engineering side of the department.

“We’ve made some strides on funding levels to pay our people their worth,” Bernhardt said. “And I think going into this winter we are looking better than we have for several years now.”

Meanwhile, DOT workers like Brian Markey, who is also a union representative, said they are noticing the changes.

Markey, who is classified as a transportation worker 3, certified to operate a variety of heavy machinery as well as plow snow, was working to repair guardrails in the Bangor area recently. He said the pay incentives are making more workers want to stay with the department. And some workers who previously left for higher pay are starting to return, he said.

“Past employees that have resigned over low wages are coming back to interview to come back to the state,” Markey said. “Which is kind of a good sign if you think about it.”

Markey said there is a light at the end of the tunnel that wasn’t there before.

“I’ve spoken with some of my co-workers and if you would of asked them two years ago, if they were going to stay with the state, they would have told you, ‘I’m just looking for something better. I’m going to stay here until I find something that pays more,'” Markey said. “Talking to them today, they’re content. They are not even looking any more – they are content right where they are.”

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