The coronavirus pandemic has upended Maine’s workforce and disproportionately affected the state’s poorest and most marginalized workers, particularly women and people of color, according to a new report from the Maine Center for Economic Policy. 

The added economic burden that has fallen on Maine’s most vulnerable populations underscores the need for more equitable economic policies in the state, the report says.

According to The State of Working Maine, an annual report from the progressive policy research organization, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated many of the existing inequalities in the state, especially as they relate to low-skilled laborers and minority communities.

James Myall, a policy analyst for the Center for Economic Policy and author of the report, said the findings “point to a general undervaluing of work that is sometimes deemed critical or essential, and a broad lack of worker power to improve conditions in their workplace.”

Maine policymakers, he said, need to learn from the pandemic and the recession it caused and craft legislation that ensures no one is left behind in the future.

WOMEN, MINORITIES SUFFER

The report found that during the height of the pandemic, women and people of color worked in high-risk “essential” industries such as healthcare, food manufacturing and hospitality at disproportionately high rates compared with white and male Mainers. Those industries offered fewer remote work opportunities, it said. 

Mainers who worked in-person during the pandemic were 50 percent more likely to contract COVID-19 than remote workers, and Black workers in Maine were more than twice as likely to contract the virus than white workers, the report said. 

Job losses also were concentrated among low-income workers, especially women and people of color, it said.

Nationally, one in six Latino workers and one in five Black workers were able to work from home, compared with one in four white workers, according to David Cooper, director of the left-leaning, Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Analysis and Research Network.

The number of full-time workers in the United States fell by around 13.7 million from 2019 to 2020 – about 80 percent of those losses occurred in families making less than $50,000 per year, Cooper said during a panel discussion about the report Tuesday. 

The number of full-time, year-round, white male earners declined by 9.2 percent, while the number of full-time, year-round, white female workers declined by 9.9 percent. For Black men and women, the declines were 13 percent and 13.1 percent, respectively, and 16.3 percent and 17.4 percent for Hispanic or Latino men and women. 

The national unemployment rate is hovering at around 4 percent for white workers and 7 percent for black workers, Cooper said. 

This, according to Myall, is partially because women and people of color have historically been directed into lower-paying jobs with lower benefits and irregular hours, and during the pandemic, more people were less likely to stay in those jobs.

Plus, for women and people of color who lost or left their jobs, structural inequalities in hiring and career opportunities have lengthened the amount of time it takes to re-enter the workforce.

Lack of access to affordable child care continues to be a significant barrier for a return to work for many Mainers, but especially women.

Pandemic restrictions, the ensuing workforce crisis and low wages for child care workers have lowered the capacity at many of Maine’s day care facilities. Cost also has been an issue. 

According to the report, the typical cost of care for an infant was just under $1,000 per month, which exceeds the recommended 7 percent affordability standard for an estimated 89 percent of Maine families. 

By August, 25,000 Mainers were out of work due to a lack of childcare. Of those, 22,000 were women. 

The pandemic exposed many flaws in the state and national economic systems, but the results were not unexpected, Myall said in a statement. 

Issues like a lack of worker power, poor wages and a lack of access to paid leave were well-known for years,” he said. “The difficulties employers face in staffing support were similarly predictable in industries that have long been notable for their low wages, poor benefit provision, and unpredictable scheduling practices. Larger structural barriers such as access to child care and racial and ethnic discrimination were no secret.”

PROPOSED POLICY CHANGES

According to the report, there are changes that Maine can make to help mitigate some of the negative impacts.

For example, increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 would increase wages for 148,000 Mainers, including many of the highest-risk front-line workers, and phasing out the lower minimum wage for tipped workers also would provide a raise to about 16,000 workers, Myall said.

The state also should increase the scope of Maine’s paid time off law to include all workers, and create a statewide paid family and medical leave law for longer-term sicknesses, he added.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, noted that the 10-day isolation that comes with contracting COVID-19 is, at minimum, a huge disruption, but for some it could have dire consequences.

“(If you’re) making an hourly wage and you’re out of work for 10 days, and your employer does not have a policy in place for allowing you to still earn (money) even though you’re not working because you’re out doing your due diligence keeping your community and your workplace safe … the impact that has on someone’s life is substantial,” Fecteau said.

If a child in the family then gets sick, too, that could mean another 10 days of isolation, he said.

“You can quickly see how this unravels into a huge disruption for a working family, especially those who are earning a wage on an hourly basis and are really making it paycheck to paycheck,” Fecteau said.

The report also recommends subsidizing child care, investing in workforce development programs for people of color, expanding Medicaid eligibility, and empowering workers through greater workplace protections, among others.

Dana Connors, president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, didn’t take issue with any of the report’s findings, but he said the report takes a one-sided approach to the issue that treats businesses as adversaries.

“Success of surviving at a time like the one we’re in, really requires … a partnership between a business and the worker,” he said. 

In Maine, a state made up largely of small businesses, “employers and the businesses have been very sensitive to trying to value the worker in a way that allows them to keep their business open,” Connors said, but the report makes it clear that the onus is on the employer to do more “at a time when it’s difficult to do more.” 

Goals such as higher wages, added benefits or regular scheduling can be difficult when there are barely enough workers to keep the doors open, he added, but Connors agreed that things like welcoming foreign workers, eliminating discrimination and adding child care would bolster both employees and employers.


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