AUGUSTA, Maine — Potato industry officials said Monday that a new seasonal designation rendered by the Maine Unemployment Insurance Commission last month is going to help lower costs for growers who hire seasonal help during harvest time.
On April 30, the commission granted a request by the Maine Potato Board to designate Aug. 1 through Nov. 15 each year as the potato harvesting season.
Jeannie Tapley, office manager for the Maine Potato Board, said the news was very important to growers who hire seasonal workers and want to keep their unemployment insurance rates down.
“Every time a grower hires a worker for the harvest and then lays them off three or four weeks later, the rate goes up,” she said Monday. “And it gets worse if they keep doing it. But potato growers need seasonal workers during the harvest.”
Estimates provided by the Maine Potato Board suggest that approximately 200 temporary employees are hired by the potato industry during its planting period, and 1,600 to 2,000 temporary employees are required during the harvest.
A July 2014 public hearing on the matter was attended by representatives from the Department of Labor, the Maine Potato Board and several employers from the industry. There was no opposition to the move at the hearing.
Tapley said she was surprised to learn that the industry had never applied for the seasonal designation before, since it is already in place in the state for the harvesting of apples and blueberries and the packaging and processing of applesauce, beans, beets, carrots and 13 other crops.
Potato harvesting operations occur annually, take place during a period of less than 26 weeks, and require the hiring of a substantial number of temporary employees, the commission noted. The panel members determined that the industry’s potato harvesting activities met the criteria for seasonality and that a seasonal designation for harvesting would be of “significant value” to the industry. No estimate was given for that value.
Since potato farmers will be able to declare the wages paid during harvesting as seasonal, this means that the employers cannot be charged for unemployment benefits outside of the seasonal period, said Julie Rabinowitz, director of communications and operations for the Maine Department of Labor. That would help to keep farmers’ unemployment rates lower, she said.
Also, a pre-existing seasonal designation for potato packing and processing was revoked since evidence gathered during the commission’s investigation showed that packing and processing now take place throughout most of the calendar year.
Tapley said that based on a survey distributed by the Maine Potato Board to 271 of its affiliated employers, the commission found that the existing seasonal designation for packing and processing had largely fallen into disuse, with only one to two employers applying annually for seasonal status in recent years.
“As economies change and with the advancement of technology, our regulations must be responsive to the evolving needs of Maine’s industries,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement praising the decision. “My administration encourages members of industry to reach out and let us know how government can be responsive to their needs to promote the best economic environment and protections for Maine businesses and workers.”
The Unemployment Insurance Commission is a three-person administrative board that handles appeals for unemployment insurance claims.