After losing a lengthy lawsuit, the LePage administration is finally releasing millions of dollars in job training funds to Maine's regional workforce boards. But now proposed requirements on how to spend the money have some workforce board officials unsure if they can build the state's job training system back up to what it once was.
Maine's three regional workforce development boards are set up to support and train tens of thousands of job seekers across the state each year. But much of that work froze last fall when Gov. Paul LePage refused to release about $8 million in federal funds to the boards. LePage has long wanted to eliminate the boards, but the U.S. Department of Labor has rejected his requests.
Regional officials say that when LePage refused to release job training funds in the fall, it had a big impact on their operations.
“There's no question that services had come pretty much to a halt,” says Michael Bourret, the director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., the regional workforce agency based in Brunswick.
Bourret says that without the money, local job training organizations had to lay off workers. He says the organization that Coastal Counties contracts with, called Workforce Solutions, laid off about 15 workers – about 75 percent of its staff. Similar organizations across Maine also saw cutbacks, and the regional workforce board in Central and Western Maine even lost its executive director.
“There's definitely going to be a pretty sizable impact on the volume of customers that we've served,” Bourret says. “I can certainly tell you, there's been a big drop.”
In October, Coastal Counties sued the LePage administration to release the federal funds, and a judge ruled in its favor in January. LePage appealed the ruling but officially dropped that appeal on Thursday. And regional workforce boards now say that over the past two weeks, they've finally received the funds that have been held up for months.
Joanna Russell, the executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board in Bangor, says she's thankful for the money. She says that when federal funds were lost this past fall, more than 2,200 job seekers were left on their own. Russell says the state tried to help as many workers as they could, but she believes that it will take months to track them all down and get them back in the system.
“These are people who were engaged in job training programs, job search, work experience, etc.” she says. “So all 2,200 people, somehow, were impacted. And we just don't know the full scope of that.”
Russell says local service providers will now need to hire back much of their staff, which could take weeks or months. Even now, after receiving the federal money, workforce directors say new proposed changes to how that money must be be spent could leave the system unable to handle its usual volume of customers.
In January, the Maine State Workforce Board approved a new policy requiring the regional boards to spend at least 70 percent of the federal funds on job training. That new minimum would be the highest in the country. Currently, less than 40 percent of federal funds go to training in Maine.
Russell says it's not feasible to get that number up to 70. She says federal law requires workforce boards to spend much of their federal funds on crucial services other than direct job training. Those include case management and counseling to help youth, laid-off workers, and at-risk clients such as single parents and those with addiction problems.
“In order for these folks to get off public assistance or to finally let go of unemployment insurance, in order for them to do that, they need this kind of support,” Russell says. “That's why these were put in place in the first place.”
The state is still accepting comments on the modified workforce plan, which will have to be approved by the federal Department of Labor before it becomes a requirement in July. Neither Gov. LePage’s office nor the Maine Department of Labor responded to requests for comment.
This story was originally published March 2, 2018 at 5:34 p.m. ET.