“Since our staff and many of our families can’t do their jobs from home, both groups of parents had to find care for school-aged children when schools went remote," said Michelle Belanger, program coordinator at childcare center Youth and Family Outreach in Portland. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Center for Economic Policy

Maine is seeing a robust economic recovery from the COVID-19 downturn, but that good news hides ongoing weaknesses among the state’s workers, a new report released Tuesday found.

The number of people working in Maine in August was just 1 percent below pre-pandemic levels and real GDP was 4 percent higher as of the first quarter of 2022, the report by the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy said. That has boosted businesses, but not all workers are benefitting.

“The major development characterizing Maine’s economy in 2022 is a revival of worker power to an extent not seen in many decades,” James Myall, an economic policy analyst at the center and author of the report, said. “Workers deemed essential during the pandemic are realizing their value and that they can demand better conditions.”

Still, the state’s economic gains are being undermined by multiple factors, including the highest rates of inflation in 40 years, too many Mainers being unable to participate fully in the economy and numerous jobs lacking basic protections for workers, the report said. Some sectors, especially the public sector and those reliant on state funding, lack the resources to raise wages to hire and retain workers.

One business area especially hard hit during the pandemic was child care. Michelle Belanger, who has worked in early child care for 25 years, said she is still seeing parents struggle to make ends meet, including staff who are parents at Youth and Family Outreach in Portland, where she is program coordinator. The center has 15 employees serving 58 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.

“Since our staff and many of our families can’t do their jobs from home, both groups of parents had to find care for school-aged children when schools went remote,” Belanger said. “Quarantine periods meant that children couldn’t attend care for up to 14 days at a time and parents — including our staff — couldn’t work.”

The center lost workers when school went remote, but now that demand at the center is high again, there is a shortage of teachers, and the waitlist to sign children up is stretching out, in some cases up to three years.

Child care can cost more than $15,000 a year for an infant and $13,000 for children ages 3 to 5. A lot of parents are faced with the choice of having to work or stay at home, she said.

At the same time, it is difficult to pay staff a living wage. Belanger said they are not entering the field or if they do, they have to work two or three jobs.

“The child care workforce is unable to work,” she said.

The state needs to invest in child care subsidies and other programs, Myall said. While workforce shortages existed long before the pandemic, workers now have more power because the labor market is the tightest it has been in the past couple decades, he said.

One result is efforts among workers to unionize. Workers at a Starbucks in Portland voted to unionize on Monday. But unionizing can be an uphill battle. Brandi McNease, a food service worker, said her employer shut down its Augusta franchise after she and other employees tried to unionize.

“Restaurant workers are taking on an unprecedented workload while being treated progressively worse by bosses and customers alike,” said Brandi McNease, a food service worker who saw the Augusta franchise of Chipolte close when she and other employees tried to unionize. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Center for Economic Policy

McNease cited unsafe conditions, including a leaking gas line and understaffing, behind a worker walkout this spring that ultimately led to the effort to unionize.

“Restaurant workers are taking on an unprecedented workload while being treated progressively worse by bosses and customers alike,” McNease said. “We’re being treated subhuman as a server.”

She was among several workers discussing their job situations on a video call about the Maine center’s report on Tuesday. While she did not mention her former employer by name, she has been quoted widely in the press as having worked at Chipotle in Augusta, where the union campaign was the first in the nation at a Chipotle location.

McNease expects to hear a decision this week about whether the company had a legitimate cause to shut the Augusta store and fire union supporters, and whether it discriminated against former Augusta employees trying to get jobs at other Chipotle locations.

Meantime, she is working part-time for a new entity, the Maine Labor Alliance, which aims to share information about unionizing.

Myall said some would-be employees don’t have a voice in the workforce. Asylum seeker Gervin Kah has been volunteering his time until he gets through the work permit application process.

“Asylum seekers usually wait three weeks for acknowledgment the application was received, but I waited four months for mine,” Gervin Kah said. With that delay, it is likely he will wait a full year before he can start applying for jobs. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Center for Economic Policy

A telecommunications engineer and former member of the Gabonese National Assembly who arrived in Maine in January, Kah submitted his asylum application, after which he had to wait a minimum of 180 days before signing up for a work permit and Social Security card. But the process took far longer.

“Asylum seekers usually wait three weeks for acknowledgement the application was received, but I waited four months for mine,” he said. With that delay, it is likely he will wait a full year before he can start applying for jobs.

“Not to be able to work is difficult mentally and emotionally,” he said.