Credit: George Danby

Labor Day was created by members of the labor movement in the late 19th century to recognize the essential contributions working people have made to the prosperity of our country. Recent reports in the media about Maine’s economy and employment statistics include: “Unemployment rates are the lowest on record for July in all 16 counties,” “nonfarm payroll jobs up 5,500 from one year ago,” and “number of unemployed is down 2,900 from one year ago.”

These seem to be good news for workers as we celebrate Labor Day. The statistics demonstrate that people are working, but other news indicates that the work has not resulted in economic security for many workers. We consistently hear that food pantries are serving more families, homelessness is becoming more widespread and many people are only one paycheck away from a financial crisis. Clearly, the promise that being employed and working hard will bring prosperity has not been a reality for many Maine families.

How can this be? In the past, unionization played a vital role in setting standards for wages and benefits. Businesses like paper mills, textile mills and shoe factories were the backbone of our Maine economy and workers in them organized and bargained for wages and benefits. However, the economy has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Today, union membership in Maine hovers at about 13 percent. This, coupled with changing technology, foreign competition, business consolidation and new ownership structures has changed workplaces and the types of work that shape the economy of Maine.

Today, growth in health care, professional services and hospitality jobs has transformed the old economy once dominated by manufacturing. Complex layers of corporate ownership, a focus on core business competencies and outsourcing of other functions have emerged as new business models. These practices have resulted in new types of work expectations, including limited job security, being on-call 24 hours a day, and becoming independent contractors or “gig” workers.

Many of these emerging industries have not been organized by labor unions and many of the relationships are challenging the very definition of employment. This changed landscape and the lack of a “worker voice” has contributed to pay stagnation and limited benefits for many workers. In response, we are beginning to see new forms of union organizing and the creation of worker centers to address these challenges.

In this modern work environment, government can play a role in improving the quality of life of Maine workers. In the recent legislative session, with the governor’s leadership, bipartisan support and the backing of a broad swath of stakeholders, Maine has taken a significant step forward in providing an important benefit to workers.

A new law was enacted that will allow workers at businesses with more than 10 employees to earn up to five days of paid time off a year. The law will take effect January 1, 2021. This groundbreaking law will allow most of Maine’s workers to earn paid time off to take care of themselves or their family without losing pay. The Maine Department of Labor will conduct robust rulemaking with all stakeholders. If you would like to be updated during the process, please email and ask to be placed on the “Earned Paid Time Off rules mailing list.”

We are at an important intersection on Labor Day. The labor market is tight and businesses across sectors are looking for workers. Now is the moment to highlight the mutual interests of “business” and “labor” and create an environment that leverages this symbiotic relationship. Both workers and Main Street need to thrive for Maine to thrive. Hard work should provide a sustainable living and businesses should be able to prosper. The Maine Department of Labor is committed to doing all we can to level the playing field for both workers and employers, and to improve the lives of all Mainers!

Laura Fortman is commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.