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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s state employees’ union is complaining that too many workers have been classified as emergency responders, preventing them from accessing paid leave under a federal coronavirus response law and causing difficulty for working parents.
The dispute comes amid ongoing disagreements between the administration of Gov Janet Mills and the Maine Service Employees Association, the union representing 12,000 state employees, over pandemic-related issues including paid leave, teleworking and hazard pay.
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Under a law passed by Congress in mid-March, certain employers including state government were required to offer two weeks of additional paid sick leave for all employees, as well as 10 weeks of paid family leave and two weeks unpaid leave to workers whose children were not in school. It exempted health care workers and emergency responders from those provisions.
Initial rules issued by the U.S. Department of Labor defined emergency responders as “anyone necessary for the provision of transport, care, healthcare, comfort and nutrition of such patients, or others needed” while giving governors some discretion.
Workers in Maine classified as emergency responders include state Center for Disease Control and Prevention employees, police, carpenters and child protective service caseworkers, according to a list the Mills administration shared with the state employees’ union.
Tom Feeley, general counsel for the union, said the categorization of workers as emergency responders was “way too broad,” adding that many of those exempted from the federal paid leave were not working directly on the state’s response to the coronavirus.
“For the administration to say that these people should not be entitled to a benefit that all other workers in the state of Maine are entitled to is troubling,” Feeley said.
Kyle Hadyniak, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which manages benefits for state employees, said the classification of workers as emergency responders was not based on “whether a particular employee performs work that specifically relates to COVID-19” but whether they were needed in the state’s overall response.
Health and human services workers classified as emergency responders received an email from the department on Thursday saying that exemptions were “limited to the positions most impacted by and necessary to respond to COVID-19.”
Kaylene Godwin, a member of the union and a Portland-based child protective services caseworker, said being exempt from the leave law was frustrating, especially for workers like her who are also parents.
“I’m thinking, ‘Do I need to quit my job?’” Godwin said. “I can’t continue to sacrifice my own children, which is pretty ironic because of my position. I think they’re forcing a lot of people to make that choice unnecessarily.”
Godwin said child protective services would still be able to function if employees were not classified as emergency responders, since the 10 weeks of paid leave is only for parents who need to care for their children. She said the division had worked with less staff before and she thought it was contradictory that caseworkers were considered emergency responders but not offered hazard pay.
Hadyniak said federal guidance indicated child welfare workers should be classified as emergency responders. Some versions of the guidance indicated that, but others, including the one sent to state employees on Wednesday, did not.
The Maine Services Employees Association reached an agreement with the state this month to allow for hazard pay for employees of correctional facilities and state psychiatric centers. But Feeley said the union had also requested hazard pay for all workers who continue to interact with the public, including those who the state considers to be emergency responders.
The state employees’ union has clashed with the Mills administration over the handling of state workers during the coronavirus outbreak, pushing for the release of nonessential workers and increased teleworking. As of earlier this month, about 85 percent of non-public safety personnel were working from home, according to the budget department.
Several state workers have contracted the coronavirus, including two workers at the state health and human services office in Lewiston.
Watch: Janet Mills speaks to people who think they’re not at risk