Last month, Gov. Paul LePage informed the U.S. Department of Labor that he would no longer accept about $8 million in federal job retraining funding for thousands of unemployed workers.
In response, the Secretary of Labor warned LePage that his decision could force career centers around the state to close and potentially eliminate services for 50,000 people. The correspondence was obtained by the Bangor Daily News.
Current funding for the program expires at the end of the month. The decision could upend the future plans of at least hundreds of Mainers looking to get back into the workforce.
Colleen Labrecque’s schedule revolves around two things: caring for her youngest daughter — still in high school — and preparing for class. Labrecque is one of a half-dozen people who come to Farmington’s Mt. Blue High School three nights a week, training to become certified nursing assistants.
Labrecque says completing the class could change her life.
“I think it would be very good for me to get out there, start working,” she says. “I wanted a job that wasn’t meaningless. I wanted to do something with my life and take care of people and help people.”
But the cost of the training is steep, $1,300, and that doesn’t include books, scrubs or equipment. As a single mom with two kids, Labrecque wouldn’t be able to afford it on her own. But through funding from a local career center her expenses are covered.
“They’ve helped me with vouchers. To get clothes, scrubs, stethoscopes, everything I needed,” she says.
Across the state, much of the funding for similar job training programs is provided through a federal program called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. But a recent conflict between LePage and the federal government has put the future of the funding in limbo.
At issue are three regional workforce boards, which receive about $9 million each year from the program. LePage has repeatedly tried to consolidate them into one, viewing it as a way to reduce “the size and scope of government,” according to Maine Department of Labor spokesperson Laura Hudson.
But the federal Department of Labor has rejected LePage’s attempts to shrink the boards. And in a letter last month obtained by the Bangor Daily News, LePage said the state would no longer participate in the program.
It’s a decision being met with more than a little concern.
“If this was about efficiency and effectiveness, this is a hell of a way to try to go there,” says Michael Bourret, the director of Coastal Counties Workforce, Inc., a regional workforce board serving York to Waldo County.
Bourret says without the money, thousands of job seekers will go without services. He says last year, direct job training was provided to more than 2,200 people.
Coastal Counties Deputy Director Antoinette Mancusi says nearly 50,000 people received some degree of help, ranging from resume writing to child care and transportation.
“We’re talking tens and tens of thousands of people,” Mancusi says, “who, one way or another, the system will be affected and will be denied services as a result.”
With funding running out at the end of October, organizations across Maine are preparing to halt or freeze services. Western Maine Community Action says it’s already handed out conditional layoffs to 14 of its staff members, roughly a third of its workforce.
Meanwhile, the Maine Adult Education Association recently sent out a survey to gauge how its students would be affected by the loss of funding. Executive Director Shirley Wright says she heard 11 of the state’s 72 programs, but the results showed that 275 adults would be stalled in their training.
She says the total number of students affected statewide is likely much higher.
“It’s funding that, there’s nowhere else to look for it,” Wright says. “The people waiting for training, they’re unemployed. Maybe on welfare. They don’t have the money to kick into that training.”
Some organizations are holding off on any action because they’re still unclear about what’s happening at the state level. Joanna Russell, executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board, says she’s unsure of what to tell local service providers because she has received little guidance from the state.
“Everything is up in the air here,” she says. “People ask me questions. And I’m very frustrated because I don’t have the answers. I’ve had nothing in writing.”
In a statement, Hudson says the governor has been open to other options, including sending federal money “directly to Maine’s three local workforce boards,” though she says those attempts have been rejected by the federal government. But Hudson says the state is working to resolve the issue.
Calls to the governor’s office seeking comment for this story were not returned by airtime, and the U.S. Department of Labor declined to comment.