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Maine Lawmakers Reach Compromise On Paid Leave Bill

Joel Page
AP Photo
This Feb. 4, 2014 photo shows the Statehouse in Augusta, Maine.

Roughly 200,000 Maine workers who do not currently receive paid sick leave could soon earn paid time off for any reason if a newly amended bill becomes law this year.

The measure was advanced by a legislative committee this week after Democratic Gov. Janet Mills helped rewrite it. Labor advocates are now heralding the amended bill as one of the most progressive leave proposals in the country, while business groups say it is less damaging than the original version — or the ballot initiative poised to go to voters next year.

The plan, sponsored by state Sen. Rebecca Millett, a Democrat from South Portland, originally mandated paid sick leave for workers at businesses that employ five or more people and unpaid sick time at places with fewer than five workers. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, hospitality organizations and retail groups all warned that the proposal would crush small business owners.

"It was seen as overreaching, burdensome, expensive," says Peter Gore with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Gore says that the original measure would have been especially tough on businesses that rely on temporary, part-time or seasonal workers.

But Gore and other business groups also realized that some kind of paid sick leave bill would pass this session because it is a priority for the Democrats who control the legislature. And if it did not pass, a progressive activist group would likely send the issue directly voters in 2020 through Maine's direct initiative process.

"Knowing that something was going to pass, knowing that the referendum was hanging over the heads of Maine businesses out there — which would be a very difficult campaign to win — this is as good a proposal as we could expect," Gore says.

By this proposal, Gore does not mean the original one, but the compromise bill that Republicans and Democrats on the Labor Committee advanced on Wednesday. The new bill broadens the number of affected businesses to those with 10 or more employees, a change that would still affect an estimated 85 percent of Maine businesses, but exempts many smaller employers.

The amendment passed by the Labor Committee also effectively changed the bill from a paid sick leave initiative to one that would allow workers to accrue paid time off and use it for other reasons — a change endorsed by business groups for its administrative simplicity — and by the bill's sponsor, Sen. Rebecca Millett, for its progressivity.

"We're leading. We're actually leading on this issue. Again, I'm really excited about that because I'm not sure employers want to be making the decision as to how their employees use their time off," Millett says.

Millett says instead of joining the 10 other states with paid sick leave, Maine could soon become one of the first to mandate paid leave for most of its workers. She says many higher wage earners probably already receive some form of paid leave, but this bill, if it becomes law, will provide low-wage workers with a similar benefit.

Maine People's Alliance Political Director Taryn Hallweaver says that helping those workers was primary goal of the original bill, as well as the ballot initiative that her organization has at the ready if the Legislature doesn't act.

Hallweaver says all workers are confronted with a decision when they get sick: call out and lose pay, or work while sick. And she says it's a false a choice.

"The bill that was voted out of the Labor Committee yesterday, agrees. And it even goes a little bit further to say, 'yes, everyone gets sick,’ and there are other unexpected things that happen in life like, a boiler might break, or a basement floods, or a car breaks down and people can be put in that same really impossible decision between dealing with what comes up and losing pay," she says.

Still, Hallweaver is not thrilled that the bill prohibits municipalities from adopting their own leave proposals, as the city of Portland currently is. But she stops short of declaring that her organization has abandoned the possibility of pushing a statewide ballot initiative, a hedge that reflects the bill's still-young voyage in the legislative process, and the reality that a ballot campaign provided leverage in getting the current proposal this far.

That threat, says the Maine State Chamber's Peter Gore, is why he characterizes his group's position as acquiescence, not support.

"No one's doing backflips over this, trust me," Gore says.

Business groups and Republicans like Sen. Jeff Timberlake, of Turner, certainly are not. Timberlake says the bill is a compromise, a necessary one.

"If you ask me today, I still don't like it. I don't think it's good for business for the state of Maine," he says.

The paid leave proposal is among a list of about three dozen bills festooned on Timberlake's office wall under the banner, "bad bills for Maine people."

Nevertheless, the initiative could soon become a major legislative victory for Gov. Janet Mills, who took a lead role in drafting the changes. Asked during a brief interview to confirm rumors that she drafted the amended bill herself — winnowing its original 15 pages to just three — the former-attorney general would only say she was a participant. But she was unequivocal that she will sign it if it reaches her desk.

Originally published 4:10 p.m. April 19, 2019