The morning fog lifts beyond the Burton M. Cross Building, left, and the State House, June 21, 2023, in Augusta, Maine Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — State workers who have been without a contract since July remain hundreds of millions of dollars apart from the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, which requested mediation on Monday to try to reach a deal.

The Department of Administrative and Financial Services said it made the request for a neutral third party mediator following three months of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the state and Maine Service Employee Association, which represents more than 13,000 active and retired state workers.

The current negotiations for a new two-year contract to replace the deal that expired at the end of June are covering 9,000 state workers, such as child protective workers, snow plow drivers, environmental engineers and ferry operators. Those workers remain under the terms of the last contract.

Monday’s announcement is hardly a guarantee the long-running impasse between the state and employees union, traditionally a Democratic ally, is coming to an end. But it signals movement on the attempt to reach consensus following months of deadlock after the MSEA proposed more pay and benefits in April.

“We deeply value state employees, and we see mediation as a productive next step to secure higher pay for them,” Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services said in a statement.

The Democratic governor and the Legislature led by her party have allocated up to $99 million for the state to negotiate with during collective bargaining, the largest amount ever proposed for bargaining, but the two sides remain “hundreds of millions of dollars apart,” the department said.

The state and union have not shared specific amounts detailing how far apart they are in negotiations, although the conservative Maine Wire has reported that the union originally proposed a $5 per hour raise for employees and then a 22 percent increase effective this year, plus a 15 percent increase in 2024.

The state’s lead negotiator reportedly countered by saying that proposal would likely cost nearly $600 million and countered with single-digit raises in 2024 and 2025. After that, the union lowered its offer slightly, the outlet reported. On Labor Day, members rallied outside the Blaine House and State House to demand the state reach a deal on a new contract.

The union countered that Maine’s large budget surplus and record rainy day fund that recently hit $141 million came as a result of underpaying state workers, with forced overtime becoming a “permanent fixture” of state emergency call centers, understaffed child welfare offices and ferry service captains working 21 days straight.

No matter how talks advance, “there’s no way of sugarcoating the fact that state workers for decades have been substantially underpaid compared to their public and private sector counterparts throughout Maine and New England,” the union said in a Monday statement.

The Mills administration acknowledged a 2020 study found salaries for Maine state employees were, on average, 11 to 15 percent “below market” for similar positions. But the administration said the state responded by raising pay by nearly 14 percent since Mills took office in 2019.

Monday’s news release said that increase is 40 percent higher than the raises provided over the decade before Mills took office, dating back to the tail end of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s tenure and the eight years of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s time in charge.

The latest raise of 4 percent came in July 2022. The Mills administration also established paid parental leave and then doubled it to four weeks for the birth or adoption of a child, increased base pay to $15 an hour, gave a one-time payment of $2,000 to most workers in December 2021 and improved “longevity pay” for employees with more than 10 years of service. The state worker union has noted it fought for the $15 minimum before the state agreed to it.

The collective bargaining process in which the state and workers determine pay, benefits and other employment terms is held every two years.

Monday’s news release from the Mills administration said the results of an ongoing classification study, which the MSEA noted began in 2019, are due to the Legislature by Jan. 31, 2024. After that, another round of bargaining that is separate from the contract under negotiation will begin.

“We’re hopeful the state’s negotiating team will bring their plan to close the pay gap to the bargaining table soon,” the MSEA statement said. “But after three years of talking about it with the administration, we have yet to see that plan.”

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...