Governor Paul LePage delivers his final State of the State address before a joint session of the Maine Legislature in Augusta in mid-February. LePage is again at loggerheads with three regional workforce boards that provide job search and career counseling help to unemployed people and those who face barriers to getting a job.

First, he wanted to merge them. Then he blocked their funding.

Now, Gov. Paul LePage wants to dictate how three regional job training boards spend nearly three quarters of the millions in federal funds they receive to provide job training to laid-off workers, low-income adults, people recently released from prison and struggling young adults.

The change would be catastrophic for the training boards, according to the officials who run them, causing them to dramatically cut staff and ignore people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. Those shortcomings would cause them to lose certification under the rules of the federal program that funds them, the officials say.

“They passed a policy that they knew we couldn’t comply with, and what they set in front of us is a landmine,” said Antoinette Mancusi, deputy director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., which serves six southern Maine and midcoast counties.

The latest move comes after a difficult stretch for the workforce boards, which between July 2015 and June 2016 provided more than 2,100 people with career counseling, classroom training, job search assistance or on-the-job training. That was the most recent period for which the boards received their full funding on time.

Federal funding allocated to the workforce boards covers employment services for thousands of unemployed people and supports a statewide network of 12 regional career centers.

Last fall, LePage held up $8.4 million in job training funds from the U.S. Department of Labor, which were supposed to last the workforce boards through June 30, 2018. Without the funding to carry on their work, the workforce boards were forced to lay off staff in what Nicole Fletcher, chair of the workforce board serving northern Maine, called an “unprecedented crisis” for the system, in comments on the proposal filed with the Maine Department of Labor. Short on funds, the Central Western Workforce Development Board had laid off its executive director.

Workforce board regions

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The new proposal dictating how the workforce boards spend 70 percent of their funds, which would take effect July 1, 2018, “makes serving our ‘at risk’ populations impossible,” Fletcher wrote.

The high-profile fight is also drawing national attention, as workforce boards elsewhere in the country seek to preserve local authority in the face of challenges from governors.

The National Association of Workforce Boards called the LePage administration’s latest plan “an overreach” of the governor’s authority under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

LePage has been trying to assert more control over the workforce training boards for much of his time in office. He’s tried twice to merge the regional boards into one statewide board. Last summer, he took steps to withdraw Maine from the federal program that funnels the job training funds to the workforce boards. In a September letter to federal officials, LePage wrote that he has “tried to reduce overhead and administrative costs” in a system he said “is fraught with redundancies and waste.”

At each step, the governor has been rebuked either by federal labor officials or federal judges. Many opponents of the latest proposal — including the National Association of Workforce Boards and attorneys who recently beat his administration in federal court — say LePage is now headed down a similar path, alleging his proposal violates the WIOA law.

The latest proposed change from LePage would require the workforce boards to spend at least 70 percent of their funding on training activities, which Mancusi, with Coastal Counties, said is an impossible hurdle exacerbated by Maine putting no state funds toward those programs.

Mancusi said programs nationwide typically divide their funds in three roughly equal parts, between direct training, career services and spending on rent, technology purchases and other infrastructure costs.

“The 70 percent [training requirement] really robs us of the ability to hire staff,” Mancusi said.

Direct training spending includes tuition for job seekers that allows them to enroll in adult education, community college, and other career training programs. It does not include some of the other consultation, career planning or advising that counselors say is required in many cases before participants pursue training or new jobs.

Kelly Osborn, head of the Goodwill Northern New England affiliate that provides work counselors in southern and midcoast Maine, wrote that the requirement would force her organization to ignore “individuals with significant barriers to employment that are not ready for training,” because those clients first require services that don’t count as direct training expenses, such as case management and assessment of a person’s skills to help them in their job search.

That would result “in individuals with the most significant barriers and disabilities likely going unserved and underserved,” Osborn wrote.

If the plan were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor and took effect, Coastal Counties would need to cut its counseling staff by about 90 percent, to the equivalent of 2.25 full-time employees, down from almost 19, according to an analysis by Goodwill Northern New England.

After winning the release of this year’s funds in federal court, Coastal Counties last week began rebuilding staff to around 18 full-time employees, whom they hire through a subcontract with Goodwill affiliate Workforce Solutions.

In 2016, the southern Maine board helped 564 people get jobs at an average annual wage of $29,456, according to court documents. The median income for nonfamily households in Maine was $31,024 for 2016. Last fall, the agency had roughly 900 people enrolled in services or training.

A reduced staff of just two counselors covering York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties, would mean a sharp reduction in the population served, and the cuts would leave career centers in Portland and Belfast understaffed, according to Osborn.

The threat of those impacts generated opposition to the 70 percent requirement from outside of the regional workforce boards, including from Belfast employer Front Street Shipyard, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, Maine’s county commissioners, the Lewiston-Auburn Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Workforce Boards.

Joyce raised concerns that the limitation would harm efforts to find jobs for people newly released from prison, a population, he wrote, that “needs direct supervision during their transitional period to not fall through the cracks.”

Tammy Combs, human resources director for Front Street Shipyard, wrote that historically low unemployment means more of the available workers have barriers to employment.

“Those currently looking for employment come with their own set of challenges (e.g. need of skills training, drug addiction, single parenting) and need help overcoming those hurdles to prepare and connect with training and employment,” Combs wrote.

A personal fight

The proposal to require that the workforce boards spends 70 percent of their funding directly on training began with a motion by LePage himself during a surprise appearance at a January meeting of the Maine State Workforce Board, according to attendees. The State Workforce Board  establishes workforce development goals that the three regional boards then carry out.

For that meeting, the governor had also appointed to the board five new members who had not been part of a December discussion on requiring that the regional boards meet a lower threshold — 60 percent — for spending on direct training. Currently, there is no threshold.

A spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment on the plan and the department’s analysis and legal reasoning for pushing for the initial 60 percent threshold or the higher 70 percent threshold.

Opponents of the plan also say they have not received explanations for the spending restrictions, which they say are out of line with national trends.

Attorneys Sage Friedman and Kelly McDonald, who represented Coastal Counties in its federal lawsuit against LePage and Labor Commissioner John Butera, asserted the change is part of the governor’s repeated attempts “to upset the WIOA’s careful allocation of power between state, federal and local interests” and alleged that the latest proposal “appears to be motivated not by a genuine desire to help WIOA participants but instead to be a continuation of these same efforts.”

Ronald Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards, urged LePage to modify his plan “so that there is minimal disruption to local workforce activities for those counting on them over the ensuing months.”

Painter noted that the federal law allows a governor to direct 15 percent of the federal funds for chosen workforce development initiatives.

The plan ultimately requires approval from the U.S. Department of Labor, which has, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, rebuffed LePage’s efforts to exert more control over the workforce boards.

A spokesperson for the department declined to comment on the proposal, which Maine has until April 2 to submit for federal review. The department will have 90 days to review and respond to the request after it is submitted.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of Goodwill affiliate Workforce Solutions.


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Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.