AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic lawmakers are questioning raises granted by the Department of Health and Human Services to caseworkers in its child welfare division. They wonder why the DHHS workers will get raises, while other state employees continue to work under a pay freeze.

Low morale and high rates of burnout within DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services prompted the LePage administration to boost pay for some caseworkers in the division, according to recent emails sent by Therese Cahill Low, the office’s director, to DHHS employees.

The emails were made public Monday by the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, the union that represents many state workers.

“This pay raise is an important first step by this administration in showing that it recognizes the important work performed by state workers. We hope that this signals a new beginning in labor relations with the LePage administration, and all state workers can begin to share in the state’s improving financial situation,” union President Ginette Rivard said in a press release accompanying the emails.

The union has publicly clashed with the governor’s administration over contract negotiations for state employees.

While the DHHS caseworkers will see a pay hike, other state workers in the executive branch continue to work under a pay freeze put in place four years ago.

“I’m interested in the fact that one group of state employees is being singled out and how that gets reconciled with what’s happening to other state employees and how it’s being paid for,” Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said Monday at a meeting of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew told the committee her department would provide further information about the raises.

The raises were reviewed by the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, Mayhew said in response to questions by Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade.

“Responsibilities, roles, all of that changes over time, so that’s what these reviews are part of,” Keschl said.

Mayhew and Cahill Low, in visiting DHHS districts across the state, heard many complaints about a freeze on merit pay raises, particularly the effect on caseworkers at the lowest pay levels, according to the emails. Some districts are struggling to handle their caseloads in the face of vacancy rates that are 40 percent and higher, the emails state.

About 130 employees, or 43 percent of the department’s caseworkers, were granted a pay raise effective Aug. 10. Caseworkers at the lower pay grades, which start at $16.39 an hour, were bumped to $17.88 an hour, which will be the minimum starting pay for future new caseworker hires.

Maine’s pay for caseworkers falls short of compensation offered by other states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, Cahill Low wrote in the emails.

While the caseworker vacancies are critical, DHHS is also looking at ways to support workers in other positions, she wrote.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...