About 100 state workers turned out Feb. 11 in support of a bill that would restore longevity pay to senior state employees.

Maine Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, sponsored the measure, LD 1594, that was heard by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. Eight people spoke in favor of the measure and no one spoke against it.

Mitchell said she was aware that the 10,000-member Maine State Employees Association had reached a collective-bargaining agreement on Feb. 8 with the administration of Gov. John Baldacci. That pact, at a cost of about $2.5 million, would pay longevity pay to state, judicial and legislative employees for fiscal year 2011, to be paid in a lump sum on July 1, 2011, the first day of fiscal year 2012.

Mitchell’s bill also would restore longevity pay for fiscal year 2010, the current fiscal year that ends June 30. She said the Legislature made a mistake last June when it eliminated longevity pay along with other cuts it made to benefits for state employees.

“This is an extraordinarily important bill to many people in the state of Maine,” Mitchell said.

She said executive-branch employees get paid an extra 30 cents per hour starting at 15 years of service; 40 cents per hour at 20 years of service; and 50 cents per hour at 25 years of service. For judicial-branch employees, it is 35 cents per hour after 10 years of service; 55 cents per hour after 15 years of service; and $1 per hour after 25 years of service.

Mitchell’s bill would cost $2.4 million for this fiscal year and $2.5 million for fiscal 2011.

“The deferral of longevity pay was one thing that did the most to hurt morale,” Mitchell said.

Rep. Patsy Crockett, D-Augusta, a cosponsor of the bill, said, “It’s a fair thing to do. It’s hurt the community I live in. People can’t go out and buy things in the little stores.”

Bruce Hodsdon, president of the MSEA, said the Mitchell bill “restores both years of longevity pay that were removed from state, judicial and legislative workers’ paychecks outside of the collective-bargaining process. We thank her [Sen. Mitchell] for submitting legislation that rights a wrong that was committed in the last legislative session.”

Hodsdon added that 20 unpaid shutdown days, a two-year merit pay freeze and co-pays to individual health insurance premiums were all additional cuts to MSEA members on top of the removal of longevity pay from their paychecks.

“Our current two-year collective bargaining agreements contain zero pay raises,” Hodsdon said. “These imposed cuts collectively cost our members $34 million in income — dollars that would have been spent in local communities, dollars that would help the current economic situation. And lastly, they cost the public the benefit of our services.”

Jeffrey Young, attorney for the MSEA, said the elimination of longevity pay has meant the loss of as much as $2,000 a year from some employees’ paychecks. He said the MSEA believes cutting longevity pay is an unconstitutional, illegal form of age discrimination and the union has filed four class-action discrimination complaints with the Maine Human Rights Commission about the pay cut.

“It discriminates against employees who are over age 40,” said Young. “It unfairly affects one group. The action was ill-conceived and illegal.”

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said, “I think the state’s defense holds up because this was one part of a balanced package.”

Richard French, 63, said he has worked 40 years as a chemist at the state health and environmental testing laboratory.

“I understand these are hard times for the state of Maine,” French said. “I do not believe it was the intent of this Legislature for this to happen. We were the only segment of the work force to have this happen.”

Richard French’s son, Jonathan French, who works for the Maine Department of Transportation, said he doesn’t have enough seniority to be eligible for longevity pay, but he was speaking on behalf of his father.

“My father is my role model in state service,” he said. “To me, he’s more than earned his longevity pay over the years.”