Remembering a financial cold spell

It was about 30 years ago, so the overall is a bit fuzzy, but there are details that are clear in my mind. I would have been 9, maybe 10.

I remember it was mid-winter, probably February. We were having one of those odd unseasonal weather things in Madawaska that we occasionally experienced – it was raining, and the snow base was turning wet, fluid, slushy.

Every day after I got off the school bus, I’d get the mail from the mailbox and carry it up the long driveway. On this one particular day, this rainy, blowing day, I vaguely sensed I had lost one letter to the wind. I looked around quickly, I think, but didn’t see anything.
I went inside to get warm and dry, the possible lost letter forgotten.

Until a few days later.

My parents were worried. As I recall now, they were usually worried. Dad had been laid off from Fraser Paper, losing his job as a pipe-fitter. He had been out of work for a while – a lot of guys had. We were surviving on things like wood we cut and split ourselves, help from my grandparents, food stamps, big blocks of government cheese, and unemployment checks.

And one of those checks was a few days late.

I wasn’t a brave child, and feared getting in trouble. But when I heard what they were concerned over, I told them about that letter I might have lost a few days earlier, in the rainstorm.

Dad was soon on his hands and knees, on the new, thick ice sheet behind the mailbox. There, clearly embedded in inches of ice, was the check. He used a maul to chip the envelope out, carefully drying it inside before taking the check down to the credit union.

Dad was, eventually, hired back into the mill as a machinist, where he still works today.
Those days, that period in my life, are a big part of who I am today. They’re always in the back of my head, and they form the basis of why I personally value industry, and the jobs we need as a state and as a country.

I grew up working, and around workers. I hayed and put up fences for the dairy farmers whose kids were my best friends. I shoveled manure, I worked potatoes. Every fall, my sisters and I helped my parents fill the basement with the wood we’d need – often delivered to the house tree-length. I remember my parents both working the potato harvest to make ends meet.

But no matter how hard you work, there are things you just don’t have control over. One of them is getting laid off. I’m not sure why the layoffs happened almost 30 years ago. Now, as a business reporter who’s covered these things over and over again, I can guess that there was industry slowdown, caused by a recession – but that’s just a guess.

The other thing that icy letter experience drilled into me was the importance of the safety net. It wasn’t my dad’s fault he got laid off, and there was scarce little work to be had in Madawaska – then or now. Those checks were vital. So vital he was chipping away ice, hoping that one wasn’t ruined.

They still are, to the close to 20,000 Mainers who received unemployment payments last week.

So when I heard Gov. Paul LePage mention that companies were complaining that they were competing for workers with the unemployment insurance program – i.e., that people weren’t taking jobs because they preferred to remain on unemployment – I immediately flashed back 30 years.

The worker that I am immediately sympathized with what the governor was saying – if you can work, you should work. And, frankly, I do not doubt the claim that some people aren’t taking jobs because it’s easier not to, and get paid for staying at home. I’ve heard those arguments from some employers over the years, and have no reason to doubt them.

Like many others in this state, that angers me. I don’t like the idea of someone getting something for nothing, especially not given the state Maine is in. Companies need workers. People without jobs need work. It’s simple.

But the other half of me — the half that remembers what it’s like to be in a home headed by an unemployed dad – realizes that the issue is far more complex.

When the governor says those complaints from businesses make him think we’re perhaps too generous with benefits, I pause. Can you separate out the folks who are sitting at home on their butts, eschewing work, from those who rely on the small unemployment checks to support their families until they get back to work?

I hope the state can; frankly, it should.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, the average weekly unemployment benefit in September was $279. If you’re making minimum wage in Maine ($7.50 an hour) and working 40 hours a week, you’re making $300 weekly. If you’re making the Maine median annual income of $45,708 (in 2009, the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), you’re making $879 a week.

When I see those numbers, I wonder if I could keep my family going on $279 a week, if I were laid off. Granted, because of what I earn, I’d probably get the maximum weekly benefit of $366. But I don’t know if I could support my family even on that.

I know I’d be looking for other jobs – I’m a worker. But I also know that until I found that next job, I’d need whatever help I could get.