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Mainers weigh in on paid family and medical leave proposal

  crowd that rallied at the state house.
Patty Wight
Maine Public
A crowd rallied at the state house in support of paid family leave on May 25, 2023.

In the months before her mother died in February from lung disease, Regina Rooney moved in to care for her. She says it was the only option. She didn't have time to navigate the process of putting her mom in a facility, and she also couldn't afford to hire around the clock care.

"In short, our options were limited, even with all of the privileges of a middle class dual-income household with no children," said Rooney. "Helping mom to stay at home was the only real choice and yet, without two incomes we couldn't have afforded to pay two mortgages. Paid leave is what made it possible."

Rooney was able to use 12 weeks of paid family leave through her job at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. But she and others who rallied at the state house Thursday say that kind of benefit shouldn't be a privilege. It should be available to all.

"Maine is the only state in New England that does not have some sort of paid family leave. We are an outlier," said Democratic Sen. Mattie Daughtry.

She's one of the lead sponsors of a bill that would establish a state program. Daughtry said her own experiences both providing end of life care and relying on family to care for her own medical issue motivated her to create a program for Maine. If successful, Maine would join more than a dozen other states that have such programs.

"We know we need to increase our workforce," Daughtry said. "We know Maine businesses needs to compete regionally, nationally, and globally. And we know that when young people are looking for a place to set down roots, grow their careers, and start a family, they're looking at more than just what a job pays."

The proposal would allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave after the birth of a baby, to care for an adopted or foster child, or if they or a loved on has a serious health condition. Victims of sexual assault or domestic violence could also take leave. Compensation would be tiered so that employees would receive between 75 to 90% of their pay but no more than the state's average weekly wage. The program would be funded through payroll contributions of up to 1%, evenly split between employers and employees. Employers with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt, but workers would still pay their portion so they could use the program.

"Many of the leaders we have spoken with in other states are actually in awe with how thorough our state has been," Democratic Rep. Kristen Cloutier told the crowd that rallied at the state house.

She's the other lead sponsor of the bill, which is borne out of the recommendations of a state committee charged with developing a paid family and medical leave program. Cloutier said she and Daughtry then solicited and incorporated feedback from hundreds of business and individuals to craft the proposal.

"We have the potential to pass the most collaborative and the most comprehensive paid family and medical leave policy in the United States," Cloutier said.

But despite the compromises included in the bill, they're not enough for major business groups to get on board.

"We do support the idea of paid family medical leave as a public policy in this state. We just don't support this version of it," said Peter Gore, a consultant for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Gore said it would put a significant administrative burden on small businesses to keep track of payments. And he said it would likely worsen the current workforce shortage.

"People are paying into this system," he said. "They are going to want to utilize this system. The businesses, particularly small businesses, already have significant workforce challenges. How are they going to find someone to take a job on a 12 week basis if they can't find full time workers now?"

The proposal is also seen by some opponents as too generous. Nate Cloutier of Hospitality Maine said workers could use the program as soon as they earn six times the average weekly wage of roughly $1000.

"Hypothetically, I could earn $6,000 and take 12 weeks of leave right at the beginning of joining a job," he said.

And for seasonal businesses that are only open four months of the year, Cloutier said they could face losing employees for the bulk of the season.

"I mean for seasonal businesses, we can't have somebody gone for 12 weeks out of a 16 week, ya know, season. That's just, not feasible," he said.

Both Hospitality Maine and the Maine State Chamber say one possible compromise is to make Maine's current unpaid Family and Medical Leave law become a paid program. They argue that businesses are already familiar with it and the benefits are more workable for employers. Governor Janet Mills is also suggesting compromises. Her deputy chief of staff Elise Baldacci testified neither for nor against the bill on the Governor's behalf.

"The goal in crafting this legislation should be to provide as generous a statewide leave policy as possible while recognizing the operational needs of our diverse workforce and employment base," she said.

The Governor would like to see stronger exemptions for small businesses, said Baldacci, a minimum work time of 120 days to use the program, and reducing compensation to 66 percent of wages, which is what short term disability provides.

Sen. Daughtry and Rep.Cloutier made it clear to the committee that they're open to compromise. But they said time is of the essence to create a legislative solution. Because if they fail, a coalition has collected enough signatures to put the issue to a voter referendum next year.