2017-12-14 / Front Page

Workforce office closes in Biddeford, lawsuit filed

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – An employment services office in Biddeford did not renew its lease in part because of Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to accept federal funding.

Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the federal government made $8.4 million available to the LePage Administration this summer for the 2017- 2018 fiscal year. The governor denied the funding, citing wasteful spending across the state’s three workforce boards in Brunswick, Lewiston and Bangor. Since the beginning of his tenure, LePage has called for the creation of a single workforce board in Augusta, according to Julie Rabinowitz, press secretary for the governor.

Laura Hudson, director of communications and marketing for the Maine Department of Labor, said there are 10 other states in the U.S. with populations fewer than 1 million and a single workforce board, including New Hampshire and Vermont. As of July 2016, the United States Census Bureau estimated the Maine state population to be 1,331,479.

Workforce Solutions is maintaining services but closed its doors at 407 Alfred St. at the end of September. Since then, its five full-time Biddeford employees have found work space at Biddeford Adult Education, Sanford Community Adult Education and Biddeford and Saco Chamber of Commerce. Workforce Solutions had an office on Alfred Street since June 2009. The monthly rent was $1,300 plus heat and utilities.

Goodwill Northern New England provides employment services under the title “Workforce Solutions” with funding from Coastal Counties Workforce Board, a nonprofit that administers federal funding for workforce development in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties.

The federal government provides all of Coastal Counties’ funding, which in turn funds Workforce Solutions. Coastal Counties’ Executive Director Michael Bourret wrote in an email that he could not comment on the organization’s budget, or how it is spent, because of a pending lawsuit against the LePage Administration filed Oct. 24. The nonprofit sued because of the governor’s refusal to accept federal funding. Coastal Counties Workforce will be represented by Murray Plumb & Murray of Portland.

Heather Steeves, a spokesperson for Workforce Solutions, said that while staff no longer have their own offices, they can meet clients at libraries, cafes or other public spaces to help with job searches.

“We’ve had to make some difficult choices,” Steeves said. “We’ve been experimenting with mobile teams a bit in workforce development. It’s worked well in other programs. I think this could be a benefit to the community. A mobile team can meet you wherever you’re at, literally and figuratively.”

Workforce Solutions serves about 12,500 people annually. Its other offices are located in Belfast, Brunswick, Portland and Rockland. Steeves said closing the Biddeford office will save thousands of dollars a month.

“Our whole mission is to help Mainers get back to work,” she said. “We will do everything in our power to help people find great careers. If we have to meet them at the library instead of the office, that’s fine. As long as at the end of the day they have a stable career with a Maine business, we’re happy.”

Aside from the governor’s refusal to accept federal money for fiscal year 2017, funding for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program had already been reduced by 10 percent.

“Workforce Solutions is doing everything we can to make existing funding last as long as possible so we can continue providing quality services,” Steeves wrote. “We also had some layoffs and shifted some staff members to non-Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act projects. With limited training dollars, we’ve referred clients to other workforce programs, like vocational rehabilitation and the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program. But without a resolution soon, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Title 1B programs will run out of money, programs will close and further layoffs will occur.”

Rubinowitz said she couldn’t comment on the governor’s decision to refuse funding because of the pending litigation with Coastal Counties Workforce.

State Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) serves on the State Workforce Board, which oversees funding from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The board met Friday, Dec. 1 in Augusta to discuss how funding for local workforce boards should be spent. Specifically, members discussed a measure that would require 60 percent of funding to go toward training individuals who are seeking employment.

Fecteau said the board passed an amendment put forth by State Sen. Amy Volk (R-Scarborough) that would require 45 percent of funds to go toward training in fiscal year 2018 and 60 percent in fiscal year 2019, however 10 percent of funds in 2019 can go toward case management. The original proposal would have required funding changes for the fiscal year 2017 program.

“We’re already several months into fiscal year 2017,” Fecteau said. “I think several board members felt uncomfortable with a new requirement that would have to be achieved in less than six months. It’s a completely unrealistic expectation for them to hit.”

Coastal Counties Workforce is expected to have a hearing in U.S. District Court on Monday, Dec. 18 regarding its lawsuit with the governor’s office. Bourret declined to say what the hearing was for.

“I think the governor has a misunderstanding, it’s not employees deciding to leave jobs,” Fecteau said. “These folks are from correctional facilities, drug abuse programs, single parents or folks working in a specific industry for decades finding themselves laid off. These cases require a lot of hands on attention. I’m not optimistic he’ll accept what we pass.”

When the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act was passed in 1998, states were given the choice on how they wanted to set up workforce boards. Fecteau said Maine chose to have several local boards, while other states chose just one. But he said even states with one board have local entities to help facilitate programs. And while some states like Florida and Pennsylvania dedicate state funding to workforce training, Maine relies solely on federal funding.

“I believe the governor is trying to find a way to dissolve these boards before he leaves office,” Fecteau said. “I’m very concerned about that. I think local workforce boards are uniquely equipped and know the players in their parts of the state. To think you could run this program out of Augusta is extremely na├»ve and goes against the best interest of Mainers overall. I agree local control is best. We don’t need Augusta making decisions for us left and right.”

For help with job training and placement, call Workforce Solutions at 775-5891.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

Return to top