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Paid leave advocates call on state leaders to use budget surplus for new benefits program

Maine People’s Alliance
Cathy Rasco, owner of Arabica Coffee in Portland, said she’s willing to pay into a statewide paid family and medical leave program. Rasco was part of a group that delivered petitions to the governor and legislative leaders on Wednesday, which call on the state to invest funds from the budget surplus in a paid leave program.

Paid family leave advocates in Maine are calling on the governor and lawmakers to set aside funding from the state's projected $822 million budget surplus for a paid family and medical leave program.

They delivered a petition to Gov. Janet Mills and legislative leaders Wednesday.

Destie Holman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women's Lobby, said the Maine Paid Leave Coalition collected 1,200 signatures in 10 days.

The coalition estimates it would take about $40 million to set up an initial paid family and medical leave program in Maine, which advocates said would cover the costs needed to staff and physically manage new benefits for employers across the state.

"We have a $800 million budget surplus," Holman Sprague said. "This is the moment to spend $40 million starting a program that is then self-sustaining."

The Commission to Develop a Paid Family and Medical Leave Benefits Program, which the legislature created last year, is currently examining what it would take to create such a program in Maine.

But the paid leave coalition said the state should start investing in a program now while it has a budget surplus and the commission finishes its work. They're advocating for one that's modeled after a group insurance program, meaning both employers and employees would pay into it.

Cathy Rasco, owner of Arabica Coffee in Portland, has given extended periods of time off to her employees in the past. She said some have taken time for educational opportunities or to care for a new child, but the time off hasn't been paid.

"There's no way Arabica could pay someone for that length of time. I just don't see that happening," said Rasco, who was part of the group that delivered petitions to state leaders on Wednesday. "To me this comes down to a bigger issue where the state can help support small businesses that might not be able to offer this benefit to their employees."

Rasco said she would be willing to pay into a statewide paid leave program. She sees it as a way to create stability for small businesses, during a time that's been especially unstable.

"Small businesses right now are just being crushed by COVID, and all the costs have gone up," she said. "The price of coffee is going through the roof. All of my costs, my labor costs — even my cups cost more — all those things have gone up. Small businesses are vulnerable right now, so I feel like the larger companies and the state could come in to support the smaller businesses and the part-time workers."