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Groups rally at State House for paid family and medical leave in Maine

The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.

A coalition of groups is calling on Maine to enact a family and medical leave policy guaranteeing workers paid time off to care for loved ones or themselves.

On Tuesday, Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, was among the dozens of advocates who gathered at the State House to call for passage of such a state law. It’s been 30 years since passage of a federal law allowing workers to take unpaid medical and family leave. But Cloutier recalled how her own family’s experience caring for her mother as she battled Alzheimer’s disease spurred her current work toward passage of a paid family and medical leave program in this state.

As the disease advanced, her mother's care fell largely on Cloutier and her husband even as they worked full-time and raised their daughter. Now a Democratic leader in the Maine House, Cloutier co-chaired a recent state commission that just released a more than 200-page report recommending potential options for a paid family and medical leave policy in Maine.

"I was blessed to have this time with my mother and I would not change our decision to take her into our home,” she said during a State House press conference. “I only wish that we had been able to take some time away from our jobs to do it as I have no doubt our time together would have been less stressful and more meaningful for all of us."

That report calls for creating a paid leave program that would be funded by up to a 1 percent wage tax. Both employers and employees would pay into the program starting next January.

"Maine family caregivers need a family medical leave program and they need it now," said Carl Bucciantini, the volunteer president of AARP-Maine. Bucciantini and others called on lawmakers to join the roughly one dozen states with similar laws – a policy that would help Maine's estimated 181,000 family caregivers.

And Sessa Salas, who runs a childcare and pre-school program in Camden, said passage of such a law will help childcare workers who are critical to keeping Maine's broader economy going.

"It is time to make sure that those who need this funding and support receive it,” Salas said. “Eighty-five percent of Maine caregivers are women. We are the ones who are taking care the children in the state of Maine and this country. It's time to take care of us."

According to federal statistics, less than one-quarter of private sector workers across the country have access to paid family and medical leave. The recommendations in the Maine report released this week will be incorporated into a bill for the Legislature to consider this year. Although specific language has yet to be drafted, the commission recommends exempting small businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

Business groups are watching closely and already raising some concerns, including the length and cost of the leave benefit, as well as the employer-employee funding breakdown.

"We're interested to see how this proposal compares to those other states," said Curtis Picard is a lobbyist for the Maine Retailers Association, which represents 350 businesses employing roughly 85,000 people. "And certainly we'd have concerns if this proposal went beyond what other states are doing," he said.

Picard says his organization is eyeing whether the benefits offered in the legislation will exceed those in the leave policies in other states, particularly the four New England states with laws on their books.

The Legislature's Paid Family Leave Commission has discussed a range of options, including 12 weeks of leave and benefits that are 80-90% of wages. The breakdown of the payroll tax to fund the benefit is also an important discussion, Picard says. The commission says workers and employers could split the costs 50-50, or workers could be asked to shoulder a somewhat larger share of the cost.

Peter Gore, a consultant hired by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the funding breakdown is key. But he also worried that an overly generous leave proposal will incentivize workers to use it and exacerbate the state's ongoing workforce shortage.

"They (businesses) have to keep operating, they have to keep doing what they're doing in order to stay in business," Gore said. "And that means if you can't find somebody you got to redistribute that work amongst your remaining employees and that in other places has caused hard feelings. It's tough. So, manageability and the issue around workforce is a real issue and a real concern and I would rank it right up there with cost."

Republican Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said his caucus is also waiting for the details.

"There's a general concern though – and it's not just shared by our caucus but certainly in the business community as well and it should be a concern for employees and workers to – that any institution of a new tax on them and their wages or on businesses in Maine is probably not going to be received well by Maine people,” Stewart said. “I don't know of anybody that's really excited about that prospect."

But Democratic Sen. Mattie Daughtry of Brunswick, who co-chaired the commission with Rep. Cloutier of Lewiston, said a statewide, paid leave program will actually help her brewery and be a "equalizer" for businesses.

"This will help businesses like mine be able to not only attract but retain quality, amazing workers,” Daughtry said.

Some of the progressive groups that organized Tuesday’s State House rally, including the Maine People’s Alliance, are also collecting signatures to send the issue to voters on a statewide ballot. But they're hoping the Democratic-controlled Legislature will make that unnecessary.

The office of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, meanwhile, isn’t endorsing any proposals yet. But Mills sponsored – and then signed into law – a 2019 bill that that requires companies with more than 10 employees to offer earned sick leave. Small businesses and seasonal employees are exempt. And two years ago, Mills supported the bill to create the commission that studied the issue.

“The Governor understands the importance of paid family leave, and she believes it is important that discussions before the Legislature take into consideration the landscape of Maine’s economy and the perspective of Maine employers, particularly small businesses,” spokesman Ben Goodman said in a statement. “She looks forward to reviewing the Commission’s report and engaging with the Legislature in the months ahead.”

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.