The workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, will soon be furloughed one day a week for the next six months as the PNS feels the impact of the budgets cuts imposed on the Defense Department. The $40 million in lost wages are expected to take a heavy toll in nearby communities on both sides of the Maine-New Hampshire border.
But New Hampshire as a whole will see little impact while Maine is expected to suffer much more.
“Maine’s going to take it on the chin,” said Professor Charles Colgan, an economist at the Muskie School of Public Service. “While the U.S. has recovered nearly half of all the jobs that were lost in the recession, from peak to trough, Maine is essentially stuck exactly where it was four years ago.”
As the national economy has slowly rebounded, Maine’s has fallen behind. The state’s real GDP shrank by 0.4 percent in 2011 and the state unemployment rate stood at 7.3 percent in December, leaving it in poor shape to endure the furloughs of the 4700 civilian employees at the PNS.
According to Colgan’s model, without its share of the $85 billion in cuts resulting from the Budget Control Act of 2011, otherwise known as the sequester, Maine would return to pre-recession employment by late 2015. With the furloughs and other cuts, including $7.3 million to the state’s public school districts, he anticipates the recovery will be delayed by three quarters to a year and potentially longer depending on the negotiations in Congress.
Unlike Maine, New Hampshire recovered comparatively well from the recession. With a diversified economy, driven by the tech, health-care and tourism industries, and no income tax, New Hampshire enjoys a median household income of over 64,000 according to the US Census, one of the highest in the nation. Unemployment measured 5.8 percent statewide as of January, well below the national average, and in Portsmouth, NH, the community adjacent to the PNS, it is only 4.1 percent, putting the state in a stronger position to weather the ripple effects of the sequester and the furloughs.
“The shipyard is much more important to the Kittery economy than it is to Portsmouth or the Seacoast New Hampshire economy,” said Professor Neil Niman, an economist at the University of New Hampshire. “That part of Maine has sort of stagnated.”
Adding to the state’s woes, the PNS is not the only shipyard in Maine bracing for the sequester. Just a short drive north, at the Bath Iron Works, several hundred workers could be facing layoffs five to eight months down the road if the budget cuts are allowed to go through, according to BIW president Jeff Geiger.
Whatever state they live in, the 4700 civilian employees of the PNS know the furloughs will be tough on them, their families and the businesses they support, forcing them to cut back on luxuries and fall behind on bills.
“The impact spreads way beyond the gates of our shipyard,” said Paul O’Connor, an electrician at the PNS and president of the Portsmouth Metal Trades Council, the organization that negotiates for all the shipyard’s unions. “We’re like everybody else. We can’t absorb a 20-percent pay cut. Whether it be mortgages, car payments, tuition, doctors bill–those payments will suffer.”
These concerns are shared across the region as business owners are left wondering what the furloughs will mean for them.
“We’re all going to be affected,” said Doug Bates, president of the Greater Portsmouth Area Chamber of Commerce, noting that local store and restaurant owners are worried. “The long-term repercussions we don’t know about.”
Adding to the unease is the open-ended nature of the furloughs. Though tentatively scheduled to last until the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30, if Congress and the president can’t come to a compromise, they could last much longer, theoretically up to ten years.
The frustration felt by the workers and the local business community is not helped by the sense that the crisis was a manufactured one.
“This all could be avoided if those folks down in Washington could get their act together,” Bates said, “instead of playing tennis with the American economy.”