Labor force issues are nothing new in Maine, where people age out of the workforce faster than they can be replaced. But COVID has accelerated the trends and put some issues in clear focus.

If it’s true, as President Ronald Reagan famously said, that “the best social program is a job,” it’s also true that the best economic development program is a healthy and secure workforce. If market forces can’t produce the conditions for families to thrive, government policymakers need to step in.

What that might look like was laid out last week in a report by the Maine Center for Economic Policy. In the “State of Working Maine,” the liberal think tank made some important observations about what the COVID pandemic has revealed about our workforce and what the state should do about it.

A puzzle is at the center of the current labor market. While the unemployment rate is dropping, there are still a lot of jobless people. The number of jobs has not reached pre-pandemic levels, and it isn’t projected to before 2023. Meanwhile, labor shortages are constraining economic activity. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that there were 46,000 job openings in Maine in August. Four Maine nursing homes have closed their doors because of staffing problems and outpatient clinics have rescheduled procedures while restaurants and stores have had to limit their hours, turning away business.

There is probably no single reason why people are leaving the workforce at a time when jobs are available, but the “State of Working Maine” report offers some likely possibilities.

Like the pandemic itself, the economic disruption it caused is lingering, and its impact is not equally distributed. Low-income households were hit the hardest, disproportionately affecting women (especially mothers) and people of color, many who held low-paying jobs that have to be done in person. In-person workers were 50 percent more likely to be infected with COVID than remote workers.

The missing workers are more likely to have held low-paying jobs that did not offer affordable health insurance or provide paid sick leave. Cutting federal unemployment benefits has not driven people back to the workforce. Doing that will take more than just hanging up a “Help Wanted” sign.

According to MECEP, 25,000 people were out of work because of a lack of child care, keeping one out of eight mothers out of the workforce. There is no way around it: The state will have to subsidize child care if we are going to make it possible for them to return. The Mills administration’s commitment of nearly $170 million in federal COVID aid toward child care shows the depth of the need.

Other state policies would also make a difference:

• A $15-an-hour minimum wage would lift the standard of living for thousands of families and make it easier to fill front-line jobs that we now see as essential.

• A statewide paid family leave program that would let people stay home when they are sick, or if they have to care for a child or family member.

• A fair workweek law, which would give workers more predictability about when they are expected to come in. Too many employers can change schedules on a daily basis, requiring employees to be available to work even when they are not getting paid.

In the near term, the first priority has to remain a commitment to the public health measures that stop the spread of  COVID. Most Mainers are vaccinated, but unvaccinated people make up most of the COVID cases, especially those where people are sick enough to be hospitalized. Until workplaces are safe, workers are going to be scarce.

But Maine’s workforce challenges existed before the pandemic and will likely outlast it. We will need to make permanent changes to keep the state working.


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