A Maine Department of Health and Human Services call center in Wilton will stay where it is for another year after local lawmakers lobbied against consolidating the jobs to a location an hour away, according to emails.
Health Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew told staff the lease on the Wilton building where roughly 45 employees work would continue based on the landlord’s commitment to fixing problems with the space. Issues include repairing security doors and fixing ventilation in the building.
The development is a victory for the Franklin County legislative delegation, which has been communicating with Gov. Janet Mills’ administration about how a planned move to bring the jobs to Lewiston would burden employees with a long commute. The closure plans were aired publicly last month.
The center opened in 2019 shortly after Barclays left the region, taking 200 jobs with it. Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, Rep. Randall Hall, R-Wilton and Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington were informed of the development on Wednesday, according to emails.
“This decision reflects the Administration’s goal of continuing to support the economy in rural Maine as well as its commitment to providing safe, sufficient workspace for its workers,” Lambrew said in an email.
Not all jobs may remain at the center during the pandemic. Lambrew told staff a “handful” of vacant positions at the center will move to Lewiston due to crowding concerns. The department will evaluate whether to continue the lease in the same location next year.
Lambrew thanked employees for their work last week, noting the call center’s original mission of answering questions about expanded Medicaid also grew to conduct contact tracing and case notification during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The news was cheered by members of both parties. Black, who prepared legislation aiming to block the closure, said it was an example of the state’s willingness to protect rural workers.
Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, thanked the department for moving swiftly on the issue, saying Black’s bill to keep the center open — which Jackson moved to table last week after a dispute with the Republican senator — would have taken longer and caused grief for employees.
The real credit should go to state employees who advocated for each other, said Jeff McCabe, a former House majority leader who is now a spokesperson for the state employees’ union.
“We saw members become leaders and take collective action in their own hands to save jobs,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave Jeff McCabe an incorrect position.