Commissioner Fortman — Standing Up for Maine’s Workforce

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Ramona du Houx

When a mill, factory, or business closes, Maine’s Career Center advisors are there on the scene, part of the state’s rapid-response team, providing support and counseling. They work individually with people to ensure the displaced workers understand the best options available.

"We work with every affected worker. We make sure they have the help they need to get by in the short term, and the opportunities and training for the long term. It is a time of stress," said Commissioner Laura Fortman of the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL). "Our people are very sensitive to situations. Some displaced workers need to take the information home and sit down to understand it; others like it explained on the spot. Our goal is to help them transition as smoothly as possible into new careers."

There are 21 Career Centers across the state, providing a range of employment services to employers, workers, and jobseekers. Career Center staff also offer career development and business service approaches. Another development spearheaded by Fortman is the new Competitive Skills Scholarship Program, or CSSP. This innovative training program won the support of labor and business advocates alike. The program is open to adult workers with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level who seek help from the Career Centers to upgrade their education and skills. Training will be targeted to jobs with high wages in occupations that are and will be in great demand. Because of Fortman’s determination and creativity, unemployment taxes for Maine businesses will be reduced by more than $65 million.

In November of 2003, Governor Baldacci formed a Workforce Cabinet comprised of seven major state departments and agencies to provide a forum in which to convene businesses, economic development agencies, educational institutions, workforce development service providers, and other community leaders to collaboratively address and improve the broad range of workforce issues facing Maine and its communities. Since then changes have been implemented, based on the cabinet’s recommendations, and the work is ongoing. To transition into the global-economy, high-tech world, areas that need to change to compete were identified.

Providing more options for workers in the ever-changing global economy is a goal of Fortman’s. Under her leadership another major initiative that specifically helps workers adjust to the challenges of this new economy happened when Lifelong Learning Accounts (LiLAs) were set up.

In order to compete in the world’s high-tech, fast-paced economy, more companies are requiring highly trained workers with college degrees. On a national level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 15 million new jobs that require a college education will be created by 2020.

"An educated and well-trained workforce is key to the economic prosperity of Maine," said Fortman. "As technology and globalization continue to change the types of jobs in our economy and the way we do work, Lifelong Learning Accounts provide opportunities for adult workers to upgrade and adapt their skills so that they can remain a vital part of our workforce."

eLaura2.jpg (20891 bytes)LiLAs provide individual asset accounts to finance education and training designed to help workers upgrade their skills. Through LiLA accounts, employers match employee contributions for education and training. These individual asset accounts are designed to help workers upgrade their skills. It’s really a partnership between workers and employers, where the employee invests in the worker’s future, and the employee learns skills that may be beneficial to their employer. The program has been designed for lower-wage employees who want to learn new skills but often don’t get the opportunity to further their training and education.

MDOL applied for and received grants from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Ford Foundation, which went to the administration of the LiLAs. MDOL staff have been working with trade associations to engage in employer outreach as part of LiLA..

"Rep. Tom Allen used our LiLA experience to base new legislation on — which he has sponsored. LiLAs are working. They are a great new resource for people in Maine," said Fortman. "And the different stakeholders from various groups around Maine, supporting the program, have been tremendous."

The Maine Finance Authority, the State Treasurer, Maine Centers for Women Work and Community, the Compact for Education, and representatives from trade associations, local workforce boards, community-based organizations, community colleges, and the university system are all helping the LiLA program.

When major employers close their doors, Commissioner Fortman, along with the governor, visits the site to talk to workers one on one. Personal appearances help workers in transition feel more secure and to understand that the state is there to help them in their time of need. When Brunswick Naval Air Station announced it was shutting down operations, when Bank of America said they had to close MBNA centers, when mills shut down, Fortman and Baldacci visited the sites within days of the announcements. During these visits additional programs to help workers are usually announced. .

"There is a federal program that provides health insurance to workers displaced due to global competition — the Health Care Tax Credit," said Fortman. "However, they require you pay into it while you are unemployed. That choice means a good portion of an unemployment check would have to go to health insurance. With families to feed, mortgages, and other living expenses, most displaced workers simply cannot afford to buy into the federal program. In Maine, we have wrapped the Health Care Tax Credit with Dirigo Choice to maximize workers’ ability to get health care. We need a lot more work in this area."

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In many states the federal program is not even viewed as a credible option.

MDOL has just relocated to the building complex where the Department of Public Safety resides on Commerce Drive in Augusta. Previously, the different divisions were scattered around Augusta, making it hard to brainstorm and hold meetings. Now under one roof, new ideas are streaming forth as workers communicate on a regular basis with employees of the various branches.

The commissioner pushed to have the department consolidated. MDOL and the community working alongside each other has already paid off. The savings have already been $300,000 annually. "By bringing people together we’re working more efficiently and economically," said Fortman.

Commissioner Fortman was recently invited to Washington, DC to testify before Congress about women’s issues in the workplace and domestic violence issues.

There was a time in Maine when women who had been abused, even raped, were not granted leaves of absence from their employers. Some who took time off ended up losing their jobs. Fortman led the fight in Maine to enact a law that would allow women time off from work if they had been abused. Congress was interested in replicating it, using it as a national model for legislation.

"It was an honor to testify," said Fortman. "It was gratifying to see laws in Maine becoming foundations for national legislation."

Prior to joining the administration, Fortman served as the executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center/Maine Women’s Lobby. From 1992 to 2003 she was responsible for the management, design, and development of programs for these two multifaceted organizations that share the joint mission of statewide advocacy for women and girls, particularly in the areas of economic security, freedom from violence, antidiscrimination, and health care.

"The Department of Labor offers a diverse array of services to Maine workers, employers, and job seekers," said the commissioner. We also help provide unemployment compensation, enforce our wage and hour laws, promote health and safety in the workplace, and provide excellent research data for Maine policy makers, workers, and business. Our mission is to promote the economic well-being of the labor force and employers, attracting and retaining a wide range of employment opportunities, promoting independence and lifelong learning, fostering economic stability, and ensuring the safe and fair treatment of all people on the job."

Commissioner Fortman has been at MDOL during a time of great uncertainty in the workforce. Job skills are changing rapidly; the need of businesses to have more skilled workers has become a priority for them to compete globally while needed healthcare benefits are hard to get.

Through the various programs she has designed and implemented, working with teams that cross over different state and private sector agencies, Maine’s labor force is stronger today, meeting the demands of the 21st century.