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Officials say the Maine state employee pay gap has closed. Workers say they're still struggling

The State House is seen at sunrise during the final week of winter, Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
The State House is seen at sunrise during the final week of winter, Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.

A 2020 study found that Maine state employees earned 15% less than their private sector counterparts and 11% less than other public sector workers.

Four years later, state officials say the employee pay gap has been closed.

Wages for state workers have gone up 24% over the last five years, according to Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner for the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

"It's time to set aside the phrase, 'pay gap,' and acknowledge the actual progress in pay and benefits that the Mills administration has championed, and with the legislative support, delivered," she told the Legislature Thursday afternoon.

Starting in July, about half of the workforce is eligible to advance to a new higher "step" on the state's classification pay scale, potentially qualifying them for another 4% raise. Figueroa said the state also created a $15 minimum starting wage for all employees and expanded paid parental leave from four to six weeks.

But the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a progressive advocacy group, said private sector wage increases have outpaced those raises for state workers over the last four years. The group pointed to its recent analysis, which questioned whether the pay gap had widened.

The legislature is considering a $165 million emergency bill to fund a new compensation system for state employees to address the chronic understaffing in state government. Lawmakers say one in six positions in state government are vacant because wages aren't high enough to attract and retain workers.

At a hearing Thursday in Augusta, a Department of Transportation technician testified that he works seven days a week and has a second job because he can't pay his bills on his state wages.

Another state employee, Maine Ferry Service Captain Aaron Sheridan said he's piloted a $15 million vessel with passengers for 19 years yet other crew members are given larger stipends or retention bonuses.

"I just want to be treated equally and fairly considering my personal efforts and those of other captains. Dedication to my job and island communities is of the utmost importance to me. I hope you can see that. We have specialized skills and licenses we bring to the table. Tell any naysayer to do their research, and pay us what we're worth," Sheridan said.

Paralegal Carol Sanborn is the president of a machinists union. She testified that she sees private contractors doing Department of Transportation highway work at a higher pay rate than state employees receive, and she chided the Mills Administration for claiming that it had closed the pay gap.

"They lauded their starting wage of $15 an hour. Maine's minimum wage is $14.15 per hour," Sanborn said. "Where is the glory in a starting wage of $15 an hour for state services?"