At the end of March, there were 20,976 unemployed people in our state. Want to guess the last time we saw that few Mainers looking for work? February. Of 1989. That was during the tenure of Maine’s last GOP governor, Jock McKernan.
The corollary to that is true as well. March saw 679,638 employed individuals in Maine. That is an all-time record, and is driven primarily by increases in private sector employment. It is especially promising when you consider that the Department of Defense BRAC’d Brunswick Naval Air Station six years ago, taking a significant chunk of military spending — and the effects it has on a local economy — away from Maine.
In many ways, this is all great news for Maine. At just 3 percent, Maine’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is the lowest it has ever been. That means wages and benefits increase as businesses compete to hire qualified people. All good things.
But there are storm clouds on the horizon. A broken welfare system — uncoordinated, inefficient, and overly-complicated — at both the state and federal levels is, in part, responsible for nearly 37,000 Maine men in their prime years remaining outside the labor force. And, as the oldest state in the nation, we need more people working to replace and care for a generation moving towards retirement.
So there are two paths we can take from here. They have very different maps and use very different compasses. We can only hope the destination — a strong Maine economy with good businesses doing great things — is the same.
From the left, the suggestion seems to be more laws compelling employers and employees into certain decisions. They are continuing to fight against saving the “tip credit” from its future elimination, allowing tips to continue to count, in part, as wages for waitstaff. A lot of Maine servers and locally-owned restaurants are trying to maintain this part of their industry.
Meanwhile, another proposal would require sick time be given to employees, at a rate of one hour of sick time per 30 hours of work. Or, if you work a 40-hour week, over eight days of sick time a year would be required. But, under the bill, you can only take 40 hours of sick time in a year, so you would carry the extra 29 hours forward. That is a fun bookkeeping exercise for a small business, especially those like small, seaside restaurants or amusement parks that hire lots of summer help.
This isn’t to say employers shouldn’t offer paid sick time; they should. And without any laws in place, you’ll find businesses throughout Maine who do offer it. Along with vacation time, retirement plans, and meals. But a 3 percent unemployment rate and its attendant competition for good people, all derived from a strong economy, will do more to develop benefit packages meeting the individual needs of employers and employees than a one-size-fits-all law imposed by Augusta.
That leads to the other path. One focused on continuing our economic growth and providing even more job opportunities, thus continuing wage growth and enticing more in-migration to Maine and its workforce. Yes, this path is generally supported by Republicans, but many legislative Democrats find themselves upon it, at least in part. Like saving the tip credit.
This approach looks to find a way to mine minerals in Maine in an ecologically responsible and economically viable manner. Those natural resources — gold, silver, copper — are necessary materials for the technology which, quite literally, runs the world. Or we look at our forestry resources, as wood has the potential to serve a critical role in Maine’s future by building “plyscrapers” throughout the nation.
Or we look at what the Air Force knows, even if the Navy forgot — Maine’s location in the northeast makes it an ideal spot for aviation work, serving as the “on-ramp” to the trans-Atlantic bridge. With significant runways in Limestone, Bangor and Brunswick and capacity at all three former military bases, we can leverage our location to play in the plane game. And with smart policy, like eliminating taxes on repair parts, Maine’s aviation industry has taken off.
So as we decide on which path to take, we should first look behind us. Over the past six years, Augusta has reduced and simplified taxes while ensuring we have common-sense regulations.
And it’s working, just like those 679,638 Mainers. That’s something to celebrate any day.