Rep. Scott Landry, Jr., D-Farmington, left, greets Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, prior to the start of the first session of the new year, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, at the State House House in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Franklin County lawmakers are questioning the state’s decision to close a Wilton call center that has been doing COVID-19 contact tracing after its 2019 reopening brought lost jobs back to the region.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services told employees in a Jan. 14 letter that the center’s functions will be moved to a Lewiston office. The state has offered to preserve the 40 jobs first by telework and eventually in the state’s second-largest city.

The center’s opening in a former Wilton Career Center was notable because it partially offset losses from the departure of Barclays, which employed over 200 people when it left town in 2019. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who lives in neighboring Farmington, hired 45 people that year to help enroll Mainers in the newly expanded Medicaid program.

Some workers’ roles shifted to help with contract tracing during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The department decided to close the call center due to problems, but lawmakers are concerned the driving distance will eventually keep employees from remaining in their jobs.

“It’s a bit of a shock to the community that has lost so many jobs before, and for this time for it to come from the state, it’s understandable that they’d be upset,” Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, said.

The department looked at local options — including some in Jay — before choosing to close the Wilton office, but none were deemed viable, according to an email from Mills policy adviser Tom Abello. Staff will be allowed to work remotely if they are able and can work with human resources to find another job if the drive to Lewiston is too daunting, he said. A local department office in Farmington may also have vacancies some employees could move into.

News of the closing reached lawmakers in recent days. Landry said the idea of telework raises questions about the region’s broadband, which he said can be lacking in some areas. He also questioned if workers would be willing to drive an hour each way to maintain jobs.

Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, was also concerned about how the move from the Farmington area to Lewiston would affect the local economy, noting workers might have to pay for more childcare if they have to add more commuting time to their day.

“To lose [the jobs] now is a shame,” Black said. “I can’t see why they wouldn’t keep doing it in Franklin County.”

The current location was inadequate because it lacked enough space and had only one bathroom, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Wednesday. By contrast, the Lewiston office is bigger and under lease.

“We value all of our employees and we’ll work with those for whom this change is a challenge,” she said.