There are more than 200 unfilled positions for Maine road maintenance workers. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly 1 in 6 Maine state jobs are unfilled, due partially to a wider labor shortage that is running into fraught negotiations between Gov. Janet Mills’ administration and the top state employees union.

The employment upheaval that marked the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the public sector. By the middle of 2022, the number of U.S. private-sector jobs recovered to its pre-pandemic mark, while 664,000 fewer Americans were employed in state and local government.

Just over 2,100 of Maine’s 13,000 authorized jobs in the executive branch were unfilled on March 1. Vacancies are hitting high-profile areas of government, with 68 empty caseworker positions in the embattled child welfare system, nearly 200 unfilled positions for workers who maintain roads and 20 vacant state trooper spots.

There have been ramifications on state services. Early this winter, the Maine Department of Transportation said snow-fighting crews were 20 percent below optimal levels. A child welfare caseworker told lawmakers in February that she was handling 16 cases at once, four above a federal recommendation. Union workers have cited pay as a major factor.

The 12 state snow-plowing routes in the Bangor area are being handled by 17 workers, David Boudreau of Holden, a transportation worker, said. He makes $19 per hour on a crew with an average age of 56, saying it is getting harder for many of them to sustain long routes.

During a recent storm, he worked for 32 hours with only short breaks for coffee. A department spokesperson noted that managers often mandate breaks and that drivers are entitled to request eight hours of rest after working for 15 hours.

“They’re not able to be 100 percent, 100 percent of the time,” Boudreau said of his crew. “So, it’s kind of hard if we have to do plowing for 32 hours.”

The granular look at vacancies came in early March, when Kirsten Figueroa, the state’s budget commissioner, sent department-level summaries to legislators considering the next two-year budget, plus a full list of vacant positions excluding the judicial and legislative branches.

It is not easy to compare vacancy levels now to those in the past. Maine’s budget department said it was not able to generate similar reports for past years and noted the March vacancies are inflated in part due to unfilled seasonal jobs, including those at state parks.

At different times, governors have regularly left positions vacant to save money but tried to maintain them in budget talks to maintain flexibility. Mills hired hundreds more state workers after former Gov. Paul LePage sharply reduced the workforce using vacancies. Her budget proposal would leave the state roughly 128 authorized positions shy of the 2010 level.

Departments in the governor’s administration cited both broad-based and targeted recruiting efforts across state government, including stipends for transportation workers and prioritizing caseworker hiring in the health department. There has been a recent rise in new recruits, Sharon Huntley, a spokesperson for the budget department, said.

“Like any large employer, we will always have a mix of incoming and outgoing staff, but we are encouraged by our increased recruitment numbers as a result of these efforts,” Huntley said. “Departments continue to provide essential services and serving the residents of Maine remains the top priority.”

The vacancies are already leading the state’s largest employee union, the Maine Service Workers Association, to push the Mills administration hard on pay in upcoming negotiations on a new two-year contract. Talks are now stalled after the union filed a complaint against the state alleging violations of bargaining law. The state has denied the allegations and made counterclaims.

Union leaders are preparing to open talks by requesting a $5 base wage increase followed by a 22 percent increase in the first year and 15 percent more in the second year. In the contract inked in 2021, workers won a $2,000 stipend plus pay increases in each year. A 2020 study for the state found lower state salaries compared with similar public and private positions.

Vacancies also land differently with lawmakers. Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, a transportation committee member, saw no unique problem on that front, noting the wider hiring issues and a unique funding structure that rolls unused payroll money directly into project budgets.

Legislators will see more urgency in the child welfare system, which has drawn several rounds of scrutiny in recent years after child deaths. More reform efforts are coming this year after a watchdog’s report noted a “downward trend” in practices. A watchdog panel is investigating both the system and individual cases.

“The priority would be for caseworkers to get better pay and to really be better supported in their jobs,” Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, the co-chair of the health committee, said.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...