Fran Seeley, who volunteers as a foster grandparent at Talbot Community School in Portland, counts herself lucky to be healthy at age 80, but she knows a combination of unforseen expenses could wipe out her savings. On March 17, Seeley walks with kindergarten students Prenda Kavumbi, left, and Jayden Christian at the end of the school day. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer 

Fran Seeley and Emily Short have spent most of their careers caring for and educating children for low pay without benefits.

They were born decades apart – Seeley is 80 and Short is 30 – and their lives have taken different paths, but their similar experiences with undervalued work and consistent financial insecurity show how little economic circumstances have changed for many women in the years since Seeley started out.

A former nun, Seeley worked 20 years as a parochial school teacher and principal with low pay and almost no benefits. She still works as a full-time volunteer in a public kindergarten classroom at the Talbot Community School in Portland.

Yet she worries that a serious illness or property tax hike will consume her dwindling savings and leave her dependent on a $755 monthly Social Security check. Kicked off MaineCare during the LePage administration because her assets exceeded $50,000, she tries to limit her health care spending by visiting a community clinic that charges on a sliding scale. Decades of financial insecurity have left her feeling discounted and vulnerable despite her dedication to children.

“You’re considered a drain on society,” Seeley said, “like a deadbeat in need of a handout.”

Seeley is one of many older women in Maine who grapple with financial insecurity after lifetimes spent caring for others, often in low-wage jobs without benefits that have left them unable to meet basic needs in retirement.

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A recent report shows older women here and across the nation are more likely than men to struggle to pay for food, housing, health care and other expenses. That’s because they often experience life-long pay disparities in low-wage jobs that lack employer-sponsored health insurance, retirement programs and other benefits. Many of these jobs are in child care, service industries and elder care.

In Maine, the median annual income of women age 65 and older who live alone is about $5,000 less than their male peers – $22,059 for women compared to $27,008 for men – and there are more than twice as many women in that category – 49,961 women compared to 23,445 men, according to “Economic Security of Older Women in Maine,” a report from the Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy at the University of Southern Maine.

Prepared for the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Maine Council on Aging, the report also found that the median annual income disparity between full-time working women and men in Maine grew from $7,592 in 2016 to $12,584 in 2020 – a 66 percent increase. Women lose earning power because they more often work part time or shoulder unpaid caregiving responsibilities throughout their lives, whether for children, aging parents or other family members, the report found.

Emily Short reads with her three students, Evelyn Wood, Genevieve Yosua-Davis, second from left, and Marin Doughty, left, at Kids Place, a child care program on Chebeague Island. Short, 30, has worked in early child care and education for low pay and no benefits for over a decade. She was happy living and working on the island, but a recent raise wasn’t enough. It didn’t include benefits, and her increased pay put her over the threshold for MaineCare coverage that her family relies on. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

State Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, who has worked for decades to shrink the gender gap, said she was struck that the report shows “the underlying story of women’s economic security remains, unfortunately, much the same.” She acknowledged that the overall earning power of American women has increased since 1973 – from 57 cents to 83 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to federal labor statistics.

Released Feb. 28, the report substantiates several state initiatives that aim to improve wages, benefits and living conditions for all Mainers – but especially for women – including proposals to increase pay for child- and elder-care workers, and to require paid family and medical leave.

“Yes, we’ve made some progress,” Vitelli said upon the report’s release, “but we have so much more to do.”

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FINANCIAL INSECURITY STARTS EARLY

Emily Short is at the front end of the continuum of financial insecurity that engulfs many women. For more than a decade, she has worked in early child care and education for low pay and no benefits, including stints at private schools and as a nanny for a child with autism.

She is passionate about her job as lead teacher at the Kids’ Place child care center on Chebeague Island, where she has worked since August 2020. She and her husband, Dalton, 31, moved from Pittsburgh with their two young children after both were laid off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emily Short is the lead teacher at Kids Place, a child care program on Chebeague Island. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She had been working as a retail manager for six months, earning $50,000 a year with benefits. But she was so unhappy in that job, she said, she went looking for child care positions online, hoping to return to the work she loves. The job on Chebeague – a Casco Bay island with a year-round population of 400 – triggered fond childhood memories of family vacations in Maine.

“It felt like I was being pulled here,” Short said.

The Shorts have been mostly happy living and working on Chebeague. Her husband, who had worked in restaurant management without benefits, took a job as carpenter’s helper for $20 an hour without benefits. They stretched their paychecks and paid the rent but had nothing left to save for a mortgage downpayment, college fund or retirement.

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And islanders have been happy with her work at the Kids’ Place, where until recently she made $17 an hour. She took a personal interest in the development of each child and even installed indoor play equipment purchased with her own money, including a mini kitchen, a wooden rocking boat and a lighted wooden arch that doubles as a stage.

“Emily is wonderful,” said Eliza Adams, a retired public school teacher who is a volunteer and board member at the nonprofit recreation center that operates the Kids’ Place. “Without her or someone like her, we don’t have a school and we don’t have families – and without families, the island community would shrivel up.”

Short recently got a $2 raise, which would have been good news, except that it put her over the income threshold for MaineCare health coverage her family depended on. She has an autoimmune disorder and her husband has diabetes, and both require regular medical care and prescriptions. And they couldn’t afford $800 a month that she discovered health insurance would cost in the marketplace.

Short asked for health insurance and an annual salary of $30,000 to reflect her increasing management duties, she said, but officials at the rec center, which is funded by child care fees, island taxpayers and fundraisers, provided neither.

So Short gave her notice at the Kids’ Place and accepted a job at a child care center near Burlington, Vermont, that will pay her $50,000 annually plus full benefits, she said. Her husband has interviewed for restaurant jobs with similar pay and benefits. Her last day at the Kids’ Place is Wednesday.

Short is upset that she felt forced to leave the island and take another job, and she’s frustrated that the work she does is too often undervalued, in part because it’s still viewed as women’s work.

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“It doesn’t pay well, but this is what I love to do,” Short said days before giving her notice.

EARLY CHILD CARE CHALLENGES

No profession better reflects the broader and long-term effects of having underpaid workers than early child care and education.

About 90 percent of American child care workers are women, and they are paid an average of $27,000 a year. That puts them in the bottom 2 percent of occupations nationally and forces many to rely of social services to cover basic needs, according to a 2021 U.S. Treasury report, “The Economics of Child Care.”

The average wage for child care workers is $13.51 per hour – about half the national hourly average of $27.31, according to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Only 20 percent of child care workers receive employer-sponsored health insurance and only 10 percent have retirement benefits, compared to national averages of 52 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

“It’s sad, but that’s why so many early child care educators leave the field,” said Heather Marden, policy director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.

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Families feel the pinch when they try to find and pay for child care, especially since 172 child care centers have closed since the pandemic started, according to Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Many of the nearly 1,800 licensed child care centers that remain are understaffed, have growing waiting lists and struggle to pay their workers, Marden’s organization found in a recent survey.

At the same time, the Treasury study found that most families need child care when parents can least afford it – early in their careers, when their pay is low and it’s difficult to save for anything, especially child care that can cost as much as a mortgage payment.

“We’re crushing families when they’re just starting out,” Marden said. “They’re not saving for mortgages, college funds or retirement. Then they often can’t afford to retire.”

To increase pay and training for child care workers and early childhood educators, Gov. Janet Mills has included $12 million in her supplemental budget proposal making its way through the State House. The money will fund L.D. 1652, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, which was endorsed unanimously by both chambers last week.

The legislation will provide permanent wage supplements to child care workers in a tiered system that recognizes years of experience and training. It will continue $200 monthly stipends, due to expire in September, that 7,000 Maine child care workers began receiving last September from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation.

It’s part of more than $145 million that Mills has targeted to improve child care quality, accessibility and affordability.

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“The state effort we’re seeing now is a critical step forward,” Marden said. “There has to be a blending of public and private investment.”

Fran Seeley, 80, volunteers as a foster grandparent at Talbot Community School in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis

HOW LITTLE HAS CHANGED

A native of Dublin, Ireland, Fran Seeley joined the Sisters of Charity at age 17 and moved to the United States in 1964 to teach in Catholic schools in California. She was 23 and she loved working with children, even if it wasn’t going to make her wealthy.

“We didn’t get a salary, but all our needs were taken care of,” Seeley said with a trace of an Irish lilt. “And back then, religious orders didn’t pay into Social Security. The expectation was you would be taken care of in your old age as well.”

She left the order in 1972 but continued teaching in parochial schools for about $5,800 per year without health insurance or other benefits. When she left the profession in 1984, her annual salary as a teacher and principal was $22,000 and she had been receiving health coverage for three years.

By that time, she was married and had begun helping her husband, Jim, run his business as a fine jewelry maker. In 1999, they retired to Portland, where he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2001. She worked at Kohls and Target before settling in as a full-time volunteer at the Talbot School.

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In addition to Social Security, Seeley has a reverse mortgage and an individual retirement account that provide some income. She also receives a stipend of $3 an hour through a foster grandparent program that encourages older adults to spend free time working with children. However, she spends most of that money on craft supplies and other goodies for the class, including yarn for mittens and hats she knits for each child.

Seeley’s finances grew rickety in 2013, after the LePage administration succeeded in imposing an asset test on MaineCare coverage for Medicare recipients, reducing her monthly Social Security check by $150. Without MaineCare, the state’s form of Medicaid, Seeley is responsible for 20 percent of hospitalization and short-term skilled nursing care costs, as well as all other medical costs, personal and home care services, and long-term care.

She counts herself lucky to be relatively healthy at 80, but she knows that any combination of unforeseen expenses could wipe out her savings within months and leave her largely dependent on government programs.

“You have to spend yourself down to poverty level in order to get benefits,” Seeley said. “When you think of what that means to all the women who weren’t able to save. And if you were able to save, you’re penalized because you have the savings.”

Fran Seeley, 80, helps kindergarteners Prenda Kavumbi, left, and Jayden Christian while volunteering at Talbot Community School in Portland. Seeley, a former nun and school principal, has coped with years of financial insecurity. “You’re considered a drain on society,” she said. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

PAYING HOME CARE WORKERS

Seeley and others in her shoes hope several funding initiatives will help make living and growing older more affordable for women and men in Maine.

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Mills’ supplemental budget proposal includes $6.1 million to provide home care services to medically eligible older and disabled people who don’t qualify for MaineCare but can’t afford to pay for the help they need.

Maine ranks 50th in the nation for the affordability of home care services and seniors’ ability to pay for them, according to an AARP scorecard. Those services include help with bathing, house cleaning and meal preparation, which can keep otherwise able older Mainers out of long-term care facilities.

In 2021 there were 900 people – most of them women – on a waiting list for state-funded home care assistance, but the program had run out of money.

“The situation has grown so bad, even people who can afford to pay out of pocket cannot find care because of a lack of workers,” said Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, testifying in support of the funding.

The home care funding not only would address the challenges of finding help during a pandemic-driven worker shortage but also compensate family members who provide the care – most of them women.

Maurer and other elder advocates continue to push Maine lawmakers to remove the asset test from MaineCare benefits for seniors, which limits liquid assets to $50,000 for individuals and $75,000 for couples.

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Mills’ budget proposal also seeks to address the low pay of home health care workers, 89 percent of whom are women across the country. They are paid $13.81 an hour on average; only 26 percent receive employer-sponsored health insurance; and just over 12 percent have retirement benefits, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Her spending plan includes MaineCare funding increases to establish a wage floor for direct care workers that is 125 percent of state’s minimum wage, which works out to be $15.93 per hour based on the current minimum of $12.75. Direct care workers support older and disabled people in hospitals, long-term care or other residential facilities, in clients’ homes or out in the community.

The Mills administration last month began making $120 million in MaineCare-funded bonus payments to 20,925 direct support workers across the state, part of a $229 million plan to improve home- and community-based services with matching federal Medicaid funds.

THE POTENTIAL OF PAID LEAVE

The Legislature also is moving forward with a cost and feasibility study for a state-sponsored paid family and medical leave program, which supporters believe would help the economy broadly and women and families specifically.

California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Washington, and Washington, D.C., require some form of paid family and medical leave. The programs are typically funded by contributions from workers and/or employers and provide six to 12 weeks of fully or partially paid leave per year.

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Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, heads the commission that’s developing the program. She sees its value both as a small-business owner and as a young woman who likely will be called on to care for family members in the future.

“Statistically, women are largest group of unpaid caregivers,” Daughtry said. “This policy has the potential to be one of the biggest economic game-changers for our state.”

Advocates say it would cost $40 million to launch a paid leave program in Maine, and some hope lawmakers use federal pandemic recovery money to fund it.

“This is kind of a magic moment when we have a one-time funding need and a one-time funding availability,” said Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.

Teacher Emily Short works with Evelyn Wood, left, Marin Doughty, center, and Genevieve Yosua-Davis at Kids Place, a child care program on Chebeague Island. Short wasn’t looking to leave her job but said she had no choice after her request for a raise with benefits was unsuccessful. She accepted a higher-paying job in Vermont with full benefits. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

All of the proposals intended to help Maine women gain financial security come too late for Emily Short.

She could have used paid medical leave after a difficult birth left her and her husband with a mountain of medical bills. She had no choice but to return to work two weeks later.

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“It was awful,” she said. “I was still wearing adult diapers.”

She and her husband have leased an apartment in Vermont and they’ll be moving through the coming weeks. The Kids’ Place is advertising for a teacher and seeking donations from islanders so health benefits may be offered in the future, said Steve Auffant, director of the recreation center.

Short plans to leave behind the indoor play equipment she purchased for the child care center, including the lighted wooden arch and the rocking boat. They cost her hundreds of dollars, but she can’t imagine taking them with her.

“I know the transition is going to be hard for the kids and I don’t want to make it any harder,” Short said. “I wish things were different.”


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