Maine’s Working Families Deserve to Earn a Living Wage

The new report by the Alliance for a Just Society, “Families Out of Balance: How a living wage helps families move from debt to stability,” provides sobering data about how much Mainers must earn just to make ends meet.

Simply put, wages in Maine are insufficient to cover the cost of living – and even though the recession is officially over, too many people remain under- or un-employed.  The Alliance estimates that in order to cover the cost of groceries, housing, heating, and transportation, plus save for retirement and pay taxes, a single working adult in Maine needs to earn $15.82 an hour.  For a single-earner family with two children, a living wage is $28.86 an hour.  This living wage doesn’t include little extras like eating out occasionally, making home improvements, taking a vacation, etc.  The report authors calculated the cost of living a basic 20th-century middle-class lifestyle in Maine: housing, food, healthcare, and saving 10 percent of income for a rainy day.  And they conclude that for many Maine working families, this lifestyle is out of reach.

2014 Job Gap_Families Out of Balance_8-26-2014_MEinfographic_medium

Here’s a dose of reality:  while the statewide unemployment figure is 5.4%, the recession hasn’t ended yet for many Mainers. Four out of five new jobs in Maine are located in greater Portland. Unemployment remains above 7% in Franklin, Aroostook, Washington, Piscataquis, and Somerset Counties.  Since the official unemployment figure counts people who are working part-time as employed, it does not disclose the fact that Maine has 40,300 people- the nation’s 6th highest percentage -working part-time who would work full-time if they could.

And for far too many of those who are employed, the wages they earn are far from livable.

A Mainer working full-time for the state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour grosses $15,600 annually – less than half of what it takes to make ends meet, stay warm, and retire someday.

Some commentators argue that the minimum wage does not warrant policymakers’ attention, as it’s just a starting wage earned by teenage fast-food workers.  They’re wrong.  More than 23 percent of workers in Maine’s Second Congressional District earn minimum wage, the highest of any CD in New England.  That’s 60,000 people in a region encompassing more than 11 of Maine’s 16 counties.  Almost a third of women in the Second District earn minimum wage. These women aren’t working for “pin money” – 62 percent of Maine women earning the minimum wage have no partner supplementing their income, as pointed out in a recent report by the Maine Women’s Policy Center.   Statewide, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more than 110,000 working Mainers.

Raising the minimum wage is just a good start.  The long-term fix for our broken economy is closer to the vision the Alliance for a Just Society articulates: an economy where people who work for a living can cover the necessities of life, care for their children, and put away a little money for a rainy day. Senator Collins, a Northern Maine native, said this week that the unemployment figure is “misleading.”  She’s right.  Huge areas of Maine – the small rural towns, the working coast, the state’s wooded and agricultural interior – have been left behind by the so-called “recovery.”

Maine needs leaders who will work to bridge growing income inequality, improve the standard of living, reduce personal and family debt, and enable Mainers to save to invest in better lives for themselves and their families. That is the only way to restore balance and enable working Mainers to move from debt to stability.

Don Cookson of WZON-AM’s The Pulse Morning Program, interviewed Christy about the Alliance for a Just Society report. To listen to the interview, click here.

LePage Proposal Will Exacerbate Maine’s Hunger Crisis

The facts are shocking. In the U.S. today, 1 in 7 Americans―more than 46 million people, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors―rely on food pantries and food kitchens to eat.

Of the households trying to stave off hunger,

  • 4% have someone in their home in active military service.
  • 34% have at least one member working.
  • 55% have unpaid medical bills.
  • 66% have stopped buying medicine in order to eat.
  • 80% buy cheaper, unhealthier food.

These are just some of the research findings from Hunger in America 2014 conducted by Feeding America, a national hunger relief charity. While the study is not Maine-specific, there is ample evidence that thousands of Mainers are also going hungry.

SNAP 2-7-2014

Further, the study’s findings offer a disturbing look at employment, especially in light of Governor LePage’s recent proposal to enforce work requirements on people receiving food assistance.

Maine is not exempt from the national trend of working households that are still going hungry. We need to do more to make higher education and job training affordable and accessible to give our workers better job skills. We also need to ramp up job attraction efforts to bring in better-paying, higher quality jobs to Maine.

But more telling is that almost one-quarter (24.1%) of food pantry clients are unemployed and looking for work or have stopped their job search because jobs simply aren’t available. This is true in Maine as well; where we have not recovered all of the jobs lost during the Great Recession, let alone added new ones.

It is bad enough that so many people must rely on shelters and soup kitchens and shop at food pantries. Now Governor LePage wants to cut off their federal food assistance. Under his latest proposal, unless they are working or volunteering 20 hours per week, thousands of Mainers could lose Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) food assistance. This act will force even more people to food pantries that according to the Maine Hunger Initiative are already overburdened.

In states like Maine where low wages, unemployment, and underemployment likely force people to seek out food assistance, it makes no sense to pile on additional work requirements; especially ones that they are unlikely to fulfill in today’s job market.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will hold a public hearing tomorrow on proposed work requirements for food assistance.  You can speak in person at the hearing or send in written comments.

Testify in person:

When: Wednesday, August 20th at 2:00 p.m.
Where: DHHS Conference Room 110, 19 Union Street in Augusta

Submit written comments by August 31st to:

Department of Health and Human Services
Office of Family Independence
Attn: Patricia Dushuttle, Special Projects Manager
11 State House Station, 19 Union Street
Augusta, Maine 04333-0011

Let’s all tell the governor that his work requirement is a bad idea unless and until jobs are available for Mainers who need them.

July jobs report: Maine continues to lag US, New England recovery

The July jobs report, released today, raises continued concerns about the strength of Maine’s economic recovery. The state’s July unemployment rate of 5.5 percent remains unchanged from a month ago and is below the U.S. unemployment rate of 6.2 percent for July. That’s good, but today’s data also shows Maine losing ground in terms of job growth.

Maine dropped 900 jobs from the adjusted figures for June including 600 private-sector jobs. It’s important to note these figures will likely change with future revisions, but they’re the best available data we have at the moment. What’s more troubling is that Maine appears to be losing ground relative to the job recovery of other states. Maine has recovered 58 percent of the jobs lost during the recession which ranks 43rd among all states and Washington, DC. By contrast, the US has recovered 108 percent of jobs lost in the Great Recession and New England has recovered 124 percent. The state still needs 10,600 jobs just to return to pre-recession levels and 12,600 to keep pace with the US recovery.

Maine Job Watch - July - FINAL

Against this backdrop, over 90,000 Mainers are still struggling to find work according to data released in July by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A stubbornly large number of part-time workers who want more work but can’t find it is driving this trend. In fact, Maine has the 6th highest percentage of “involuntary” part-time workers in the nation. That’s 40,300 workers who want more work but can’t find it.

The high percentage of “involuntary” part-time workers is an important fact to bear in mind when considering Maine’s relatively high employment-to-population ratio. This ratio accounts for all workers as a share of the total adult population and provides a useful alternative to the monthly unemployment rate. True, Maine has one of the largest increases in the employment-to-population ratio of any state, though it remains well below pre-recession levels. This would suggest that, despite relatively low-wages and limited job opportunities, Mainers are doing their best to make ends meet even if that means taking a part-time job in the absence of full-time work.

Another factor driving Maine’s high employment-to-population levels are older workers who have either reentered the workforce or are working longer.  The employment rate for prime-working-age Mainers—those who are most likely to be raising families—has not improved at all from 2009 to 2013.

Today’s jobs and employment data tells only part of the story of the challenges working Mainers face. To attain a more complete recovery Maine’s unemployment and employment-to-population ratio must return to historic levels AND not be sustained by part-time workers who want more work or by older workers who are remaining in the workforce out of economic necessity. A real recovery would afford workers access to jobs that result in increased income and financial security. More than five years since the end of the recession, we still have a long way to go.

More Data to Consider as Portland Debates Raising Its Minimum Wage

Late last month, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan announced the initial details of his plan to raise the city’s minimum wage. If passed, the bill would likely raise the wage from its current $7.50/hour to $9.50/hour in January 2015, with anticipated hikes following in each of the next two years.

The final fate of the proposal is still at least a few months away, but one thing is certain from similar measures passed in other American cities: the debate will be heated. Proponents and opponents are set to advocate on behalf of low-wage workers and small business owners respectively.

In January 2014, the Washington D.C. city council and mayor voted to increase the city’s minimum wage from $8.25/hour to $11.50/hour by 2016 in three phases. The first increase went into effect on July 1, raising the wage to $9.50/hour. A new study out today from the Urban Institute concludes that the rise in wages will have no significant impact on the city’s employment. Here are a few highlights.

  • Family incomes: On average, annual incomes for one half of families earning the minimum wage would increase by $1,500 when the wage reaches $11.50/hour. Another quarter would realize a $500 annual increase.
  • State and federal benefits: Reductions in eligibility for state and federal benefits (from increased income) would offset some of this extra income, but the average family would get to “keep” 50 percent of the increase they experienced.
  • Impact on employment: Increased wages for all minimum wage workers will be offset by an average of 1 percent job losses within this population. That means an estimated 471 jobs lost out of the 41,000 individuals the policy will impact District wide. The Institute based its findings on the assumption that employment drops 1 percent for every 10 percent increase in minimum wages.
  • Impact on Public benefits: Requiring employers to pay higher wages means that low-wage workers will need fewer public benefits. The study concludes that enrollment in the federal Earning Income Tax Credit (EITC) and DC EITC programs would drop by 3 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. Enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly “Food stamps”) and Supplemental Security Income would drop by 2 percent each.

There is one important distinction between the DC hike and the one Mayor Brennan has proposed. Unlike DC, the Portland proposal—if passed in its current form—would apply to tipped workers as well. In Portland, tipped workers would earn an hourly wage one half that of non-tipped workers, or $4.75/hour. Mayor Brennan has also pledged not to permit special industry carve outs or exemptions. His intent is for the increase to apply evenly across all sectors.

There is a public hearing on the mayor’s proposal set for August 20 at 5:00 p.m. The location has not yet been announced. As policymakers and residents of Portland debate the issue, the Urban Institute’s analysis can illuminate possible impacts of following DC’s example.

 

A Divide and Conquer Strategy that Risks the Health of Maine’s Seniors and Working Poor

The classic “divide and conquer” strategy,  often attributed to cunning Julius Caesar, operates on the premise that pitting your adversaries against each other before you strike  is one sure path to victory. In a recent press release heralding $25.4 million in excess MaineCare funds now available to shore up struggling nursing homes, the LePage Administration appears to be following Caesar’s formula.

This funding is great news for nursing homes in Maine – especially in rural areas where many are struggling badly. But the timing and explanation for the sudden availability of the money raise a lot of questions.

Last November, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew shocked the legislature by announcing that Medicaid faced a $100 million shortfall.  But in June, the commissioner unexpectedly heralded a $4.6 million surplus fortuitously available to leverage another $8.5 million in federal funds for besieged nursing homes. The governor’s office claim that his repeated vetoes of accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid to 70,000 uninsured Mainers “have been key factors in freeing up funds for nursing facilities” is a political move worthy of  wily Caesar.

The release argues that the only way to pay for nursing homes is by denying low-income working Mainers health coverage. But this is a false choice that clearly pits the interest of two vulnerable constituencies- aging Mainers and the working poor –against one another.

In fact, federal law forbids the state from using funds appropriated  to expand coverage to the uninsured- the funds the governor cites -to pay for anything else. Maine- the only state in New England to refuse the funds- continues to lose almost $1 million in healthcare dollars every day.   In the meantime, the federal government has paid 100% of the costs of coverage in the states that expanded Medicaid – just as promised.

Maine’s nursing homes have been struggling for years. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching case was the 2012 closing of Atlantic Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Calais, The closure displaced elderly residents to Ellsworth 100 miles from their homes, and put almost 100 local workers out of a job.  The governor failed to act then, even after 1,800 residents petitioned him to reconsider Commissioner Mayhew’s authorization of the closure. This spring, many more nursing homes have been open about their financial struggles.

There’s more backstory to this press release. In 2011, the governor proposed to pay for $60 million in tax cuts for the wealthy via cuts to reimbursements to assisted living facilities caring for seniors. This year, in response to the Calais nursing home closing, Senator Margaret Craven of Androscoggin sponsored a bill allocating additional funding to nursing homes. This bill became law without the governor’s signature.

The governor may be following a familiar political strategy when he makes the false claim that health care for the working poor will come at the expense of health care for Maine seniors. But in this game of divide and conquer, the losers are the Maine seniors and working poor whose access to quality, affordable health care are put at risk.

Medicaid counter  8-5-2014FINAL

State revenue in FY 2014 was slightly higher than expected but 2011 tax cuts keep revenues well below pre-recession levels

Total General Fund revenue for the state fiscal year ending in June 2014 was $3,113,496,933, which was $39 million (1.3%) more than expected, according to the revenue report released Thursday by the State Controller’s Office.

The General Fund is the primary pool of money that the state uses to pay its share of everything ranging from health care and K-12 education to courts and conservation. It is important to remember that federal funds pay for more than a third of the state’s total budget.

Individual income tax revenue was $1,406,117,705, which was $25 million (1.8%) more than expected. The positive variance was mostly because the Property Tax Fairness Credit—a new income tax credit for low-income Mainers with high property tax bills—ended up costing $14 million less than Maine Revenue Services expected it to.

Corporate income tax revenue was approximately $183 million, which was $13 million (7.8%) more than expected. In this case, the revenue surplus was less surprising, since forecasters have explicitly warned that their latest official predictions for this revenue stream might very well fall short. Corporate income tax revenue is an historically volatile and hard-to-predict source of revenue. Forecasters in March 2012 predicted that corporate income tax revenue would be more than $250 million in the fiscal year that ended in June 2014, but recession- and recovery-era policy changes at the state and federal level have made this revenue stream especially difficult to predict, leading state revenue forecasters to take a “conservative approach” and make significant downward revisions to its forecast over the past two years. Forecasters made clear as recently as 2013 that their prediction for FY 2014 may end up being on the low side: “It’s certainly possible that corporate income tax receipts will perform better than this conservative approach the committee has taken for its corporate income tax forecast for the 2014-2015 biennium.”

The fact that overall revenue came in higher than forecast is good news: it adds to the state’s rainy day fund (although not as much as it would if nearly $20 million didn’t have to be set aside to cover the cost of the federal decertification of the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta), improves the state’s financial health, and gives lawmakers a clean slate to begin drafting a new budget next year. It also shows that Maine’s revenue forecasting process works. The forecast was accurate: just 1.3% shy of the actual amount of revenue collected. And erring on the conservative side is more prudent: it’s better to underestimate the amount of revenue that will ultimately come in to the state’s coffers than to overestimate it.inflation-adjusted-general-fund-revenue-Update-July-2014

But the more important takeaway from the final report on fiscal year 2014 revenue is that actual revenue was just 0.6% higher than it was in fiscal year 2013. After adjusting for inflation, state revenue remains hundreds of millions of dollars below pre-recession levels due to a slow economic recovery and large income and estate tax cuts enacted by Governor LePage and the 125th Legislature. These tax cuts have made it harder to adequately fund important priorities like K-12 education and health care for Maine’s most vulnerable citizens.

The biggest reason for slow overall revenue growth in fiscal year 2014 was individual income tax revenue, which fell $116 million, or 7.6%, from fiscal year 2013. That decline is ultimately the result of those 2011 tax cuts.PIT-Revenue-Update-July-2014

Estate tax revenue  fell by a whopping $55 million (70%) in fiscal year 2014, thanks to a combination of factors. Governor LePage’s estate tax cut, which only benefits a few hundred of Maine’s wealthiest residents, is responsible for about $27 million of that decline. The remainder is the result of more generic year-to-year volatility.

 

Maine’s Real Unemployment and Jobs Picture Reflects Continuing Challenges for Maine Workers

Over 90,000 Mainers are still struggling to find work according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A stubbornly large number of part-time workers who want more work but can’t find it is driving this trend.

The “U6” alternative measure of unemployment, which accounts for unemployed workers who have recently stopped looking for work and workers with part-time jobs who want more work but can’t find it, was 12.8% for the 12-month period ending on June 30th, 2014. The national rate was just slightly higher at 12.9%. While Maine’s rate is just below the national average, it continues to fall at a slower rate than the rest of the nation as a whole.

Maine’s U6 is the 19th highest in the nation, driven by 40,300 “involuntary” part-time workers: those who want more work but can’t find it. These workers account for 6.1% of Maine’s 663,400 employed workers—the sixth highest rate of involuntary part-time employment in the nation.

This comprehensive unemployment data is important to keep in mind in light of the normal monthly jobs data releases from the Maine Department of Labor and related press releases from the Governor’s Office.

The June jobs report, released two weeks ago, showed that overall Maine’s labor market is improving along with the nation as a whole. The state’s unemployment rate continued to decline. In June 2014 it was 5.5 percent compared to 5.7 percent in May and 6.7 percent in June 2013. Nationally, the unemployment rate in June was 6.1 percent compared to 6.3 percent in May and 7.5 percent a year ago.

The LePage administration has emphasized the fact that Maine’s unemployment rate has declined significantly over the past two years, claiming that its policies are responsible for the improvement. The reality though, is that Maine’s economy is thoroughly integrated with the national economy, and both Maine and the US unemployment rates have declined slowly since the end of the recession. As with the U6 measure, the US rate of decline in unemployment has been somewhat faster than in Maine, although the US rate also climbed to a higher level in the wake of the recession.

As noted previously by MECEP and the Boston Federal Reserve Bank among others, the standard unemployment rate fails to capture other important labor market trends. The monthly unemployment rate does not account for unemployed workers who have dropped out of the labor force due to a lack of jobs. For this reason, the employment-to-population ratio, which accounts for all workers as a share of the total adult population provides a useful alternative. By this measure, Maine’s labor market recovery looks better: Maine has experienced one of the largest increases in the employment-to-population ratio of any state, though it remains well below pre-recession levels. But digging deeper into the data again reveals concerns and suggests that the labor market recovery is far from complete: most of the increase in the employment-to-population ratio seems to be driven by older workers who have either reentered the workforce or are working longer, and those “involuntary” part-time workers described above. The employment rate for prime-working-age Mainers—those who are most likely to be raising families—didn’t improve at all from 2009 to 2013. On that measure, Maine’s recovery isn’t much different from the US.

What about job growth? Here too Maine is showing signs of improvement, but clearly lags the nation. Based on MECEP’s analysis of the June jobs report, Maine has recovered 63% of nonfarm payroll jobs lost during the recession. By comparison, the US has recovered 106% of jobs lost during the recession and New England has recovered 116%. Our job recovery ranks 42nd among the fifty states and Washington, DC. The job growth that is happening is disproportionately centered in Portland, with small-town and rural Maine gaining few new jobs.

Maine Job Watch - June - FINAL LARGE

As we’ve written before, for an accurate understanding of the real strength of Maine’s recovery, one must view the monthly jobs and unemployment statistics in the context of longer-term trends both in Maine and nationally. Last week’s release of quarterly data on comprehensive unemployment, including “involuntary” part-timers, is important in this respect. Overall, Maine continues to show signs of improvement along with the nation as a whole. But weak spots remain and a full recovery from the recession, which ended five years ago, remains elusive.

General Assistance directive is penny wise, pound foolish

This June, Governor LePage directed municipalities to stop giving General Assistance funds to undocumented immigrants or risk losing state funding of General Assistance. While LePage may tout this instruction as “welfare reform,” the reality is this directive is bad for Maine citizens and immigrants alike.

In order to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving General Assistance, municipalities would have to demand proof of citizenship from everyone applying for General Assistance. As Janet Mills, Maine’s Attorney General, stated in her response to LePage’s new rule: “people who seek General Assistance—the person fleeing domestic violence, the victim of human trafficking, the asylum seeker awaiting federal approval, the family who lost their home to fire or to war—are least likely to have this paperwork on hand during a crisis.” Requiring documentation wouldn’t just leave out undocumented immigrants, many of whom are trying to obtain asylum status or waiting for their visas to be renewed. Asylum seekers have traveled to the United States because of fear for their personal safety in their home country. The documentation requirement would also hurt some desperate Mainers and legal immigrants, who, due to the extenuating circumstances that force them to see General Assistance, are unable to obtain proper documentation.

Cutting undocumented people from General Assistance will not only result in the exclusion of people legally residing in Maine from receiving help. It will also result in an increase in homelessness and hunger. A 2009 study suggests that homelessness actually costs the state about $1,300 more than it does to house people long term. Homelessness and hunger often end in job loss, illness, and increased medical needs, all of which diminish the ability of people previously receiving General Assistance to stabilize their finances. Taxpayers, if the people are uninsured, will shoulder the medical costs and the economy will suffer for the long-term job loss.

In a Portland Press Herald interview about the issue, Portland resident Chris Torlone said, “I really do think that everyone does have a right to that kind of help. They’re still a human being. You don’t need a document to be a human being.” Financial logic agrees with Chris’s view. Compassion isn’t just humane—it’s also economical.

Federal Court Decisions Could Impact Mainers’ Healthcare in Future

For the moment, people who have affordable coverage as a result of tax subsidies—including an estimated 39,000 Mainers—have nothing to fear. But two federal appellate court decisions have set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the subsidies.

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled to drastically limit the number of Americans who could qualify for federal subsidies when purchasing a private healthcare plan. Just hours later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, upheld the subsidies for all purchasers. Both decisions will have to make their way through lengthy appeals processes.

If the subsidies ultimately fall, it could be a major impediment to implementing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It would also hurt Maine’s economy, leaving large swaths of Mainers unable to afford coverage.

Here’s what the rulings say, the potential impact for Mainers, and what is likely to happen next.

The Decisions

The ACA aimed to broadly expand access to health insurance in two ways.

First, it sought to expand Medicaid access to anyone making less than 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL). In its 2012 decision upholding the law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had overstepped its Constitutional authority in mandating the expansion, leaving the decision to expand Medicaid to the individual states. Maine is the only state in New England to not expand Medicaid – guaranteeing that at least 32,000 Mainers have no affordable coverage option and that the state is missing out on almost $1,000,000 in federal funds every day.

Second, the ACA established subsidies—by way of tax credits—to anyone making less than 400% of the FPL who purchased a health plan on exchanges “established by the State.” Both opinions focus on those four words. The IRS had broadly interpreted the words to apply to any person who had purchased a plan on a healthcare exchange—regardless of whether it was run by a state or the federal government.

The D.C. Circuit disagreed, ruling that the subsidies would only be available to those who had purchased their plan on an exchange literally “established” by their state. The Fourth Circuit, on the other hand, found the broad IRS interpretation “permissible.”

The potential implications for Maine

Currently, only 14 states have established their own exchange, and Maine is not one of them. This means that if the subsidies are ultimately struck, many Mainers would be left paying the full cost of their premiums.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 89% of the 44,000 Mainers who purchased plans on healthcare.gov—or more than 39,000 people—would no longer qualify for the subsidies. The average subsidy in Maine cuts premiums for Mainers from $443 a month to $99—a 78% reduction. Thus, the average Mainer would pay an additional $344 a month for health insurance without the subsidy.

And the gap would only grow. Estimates from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Urban Institute suggest that the number of Mainers qualifying for subsidies will grow to 55,000 by the beginning of 2016. The loss of subsidies would cost the Maine economy nearly $280 million dollars per year.

If the subsidies are ultimately cut (and Maine does not create its own exchange), many families may lose the health insurance they were just recently able to afford and could potentially be forced to pay a penalty for not having coverage. In this light, these cases have the potential to be a double whammy for some Maine families just as new evidence suggests the law has helped to alleviate inequality nationwide.

Next Steps

Both opinions rest on statutory interpretation. Thus, the simplest solution would be for Congress to amend the ACA to make clear that the subsidies apply to all states, regardless of exchange system. However, given the partisan divide over this issue, it is almost impossible to imagine the Republican-controlled House of Representatives—a body that has repeatedly voted to repeal the law—passing a law that would shore up the ACA.

Instead, the case will likely find resolution in the courts. Before the Fourth Circuit announced its decision, the White House has said that it will appeal the earlier decision, asking the entire D.C. Circuit—instead of just the 3-judge panel—to rehear the case. Until recently, the D.C. Circuit and the Fourth Circuit were famously conservative. But in a showdown last year, Senate Democrats amended the filibuster rules in order to confirm three of President Obama’s appointees to the D.C. Circuit. Only active judges may rehear cases, and currently, the tally on the D.C. Circuit stands at 7 Democratic appointees to 4 Republican; the Fourth Circuit has 9 Democratic active appointees and 5 Republicans.

While political affiliation is not a perfect indicator of how a judge will rule on this issue, yesterday’s opinions—two Republican votes to strike the subsidies and 4 Democratic votes to uphold—suggests a potential correlation.

As of this posting, the White House has yet to say whether it would change its legal strategy given the Fourth Circuit’s opinion. However, the U.S. Supreme Court—which has discretion on which appeals to hear—almost always takes cases where federal Courts of Appeal have reached opposite conclusions. Predicting the outcome of Supreme Court cases is always tricky, but some legal scholars argue that the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning is more sound.

The bottom line is that at this moment, nothing has changed with regard to subsidies for health insurance. And at least for the foreseeable future, that will remain the case.

Flexible workplaces are good for Maine workers and Maine’s economy

Workplace flexibility policies would benefit Maine’s working families and its large population of senior workers as well as its economy. Workplace flexibility means the acceptance of adjustments to the 9-5, 40 hour in-office work week, and could include accommodations like: flexible hours; paid vacation, sick, and parental leave; job sharing; telecommuting. Maine legislators should consider legislative initiatives either to establish such policies or to incentivize employers to take the initial leap toward increased flexibility. More family-friendly workplace rules will provide Maine employers a competitive edge and a much-needed relief for Maine workers.

Today’s workforce is much different from the workforce of the 1950’s. Workers are retiring increasingly later and women are moving from the secretary desk to the corner office. Unfortunately, the workplace hasn’t changed to match the new workforce’s needs. The standard American workplace is the same now as it has been since the end of World War II: nine to five, five days a week. No federal law mandates paid vacation time, paid sick leave, or paid family leave. Nor are these benefits required in Maine. Workforce diversity can enable a larger, stronger economy—but it has also created a diversity of accommodative scheduling needs. Increasingly, even more traditional young male workers are sharing family responsibilities with their partners. The one-size fits all workplace has become antiquated as the workforce has grown more robust.

The need for workplace flexibility is beginning to garner attention. In June, President Obama advocated for workplace flexibility, telling the White House summit on working families that such policies “are not frills, they are basic needs…They should be part of our bottom line as a society.” Savvy individual employers are already implementing increased workplace flexibility, noting decreases in expensive staff turnovers, higher productivity, lower absentee rates, and a strong hiring tool to attract talent.

Flexibility policies would benefit Maine’s large population of elderly workers and their employers. Maine has the highest median age of any state: 43.5 years. Financial need often requires older workers to stay in the workforce longer. Retaining older workers also can ensure that jobs requiring particular skills remain filled despite the skills gap. Keeping older workers in the workplace means fewer turnovers for businesses, decreased reliance on government services, and a patch in Maine’s skill gap.

Workplace flexibility also makes life easier for Maine’s many working mothers. According to a report by Working Poor Families, women head one in three working poor households. A Bangor Daily News analysis of Department of Health and Human Services data found that 40 percent of babies born in Maine in 2011 were born to unwed women. Workplace flexibility laws would help ensure that women do not have to choose between taking care of a sick child and keeping a job. In turn, working women will have increased their financial independence and a decreased reliance on the state.

Legislating workplace flexibility has precedent. Former Vermont governor Kunin has championed workplace flexibility. In January, Vermont’s “right to request” law took effect, ensuring that employers must consider a request for flexible scheduling without the employee fearing penalty and must grant reasonable requests unless employers offer a compelling case for denial.

Implementing workplace flexibility policies in Maine would ensure that working mothers could care for a sick child and that more aging workers could attend doctor appointments without penalty from their employers. Workplace flexibility policies would also give Maine employers a competitive hiring edge, the financial benefit of decreased turnover rates, and a larger, stronger workforce. Workplace flexibility is good for everyone: employer, working mothers, aging workforce, and traditional young male workers. It’s the 21st century—high time for the workplace to catch up.