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As bill takes shape, proponents urge lawmakers to pass strong paid leave policy


As bill takes shape, proponents urge lawmakers to pass strong paid leave policy

Feb 08, 2023 | 9:04 am ET
By Evan Popp
As bill takes shape, proponents urge lawmakers to pass strong paid leave policy
Advocates at a press conference Tuesday urging lawmakers to pass a strong paid family and medical leave policy | Beacon

Proponents of creating a paid family and medical leave policy for Maine rallied at the State House on Tuesday, calling for lawmakers to enact and fund a strong program that will allow workers to take time off to care for themselves or a loved one. 

The Maine Paid Leave Coalition, which consists of over 30 groups (including Maine People’s Alliance, of which Beacon is a project), hosted the press conference and brought Mainers and advocates to Augusta to discuss the importance of paid leave with lawmakers. That came as a legislative commission set up to research and provide recommendations released its final report on Tuesday, which will soon be turned into a bill for lawmakers to consider. 

Paid leave programs generally allow workers to take longer periods of time off — often between 12 to 16 weeks in a year — for events such as a long-term illness, welcoming a new child or taking care of a loved one, among other situations. The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world without a national paid family and medical leave program, prompting 11 states to set up their own program. Advocates hope Maine will be the 12th. 

Speakers at the press conference said without paid leave, workers often have to choose between their financial well-being and their health or that of their family. They noted that while the Family and Medical Leave Act — signed 30 years ago by then-President Bill Clinton — provides unpaid leave, it does not help people recoup lost wages from not being able to work. And most jobs don’t voluntarily offer the benefit, as three out of four workers in Maine don’t have access to paid leave. That’s a huge issue, said Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. 

“Almost every person in Maine will need to take time to care for themselves, a loved one, a new baby, or for an aging parent,” she said. “And sometimes that care means taking time away from work because caring for your family is a Maine value.” 

Amina Hassan, the founder of a Lewiston-based group called Her Safety Net that works to protect people from gender-based violence, also spoke at the event. Hassan, whose family came to the U.S. when she was 16, told the story of her mother, who began working at Walmart soon after the family arrived. In April of last year, Hassan’s mother got injured. However, Hassan said after just two days out, Walmart informed her mother that she had to return to work or risk losing her job. 

“This isn’t an uncommon story, and it’s time to create a better future for our state,” Hassan said of the need for paid leave in Maine. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you do for a living: We all need to take time to care for ourselves or loved ones.” 

As bill takes shape, proponents urge lawmakers to pass strong paid leave policy
Amina Hassan speaks at Tuesday’s event. | Beacon

Ronny Flannery, an organizer with the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, added that people have long needed access to paid leave, even before the onset of COVID-19. However, Flannery said the pandemic has only underscored the importance of having a safety net like paid leave, particularly for frontline workers who continue to be at greater risk of exposure to the virus.  

Enacting a paid leave policy would also be a major boon for those working in childcare as well as unpaid caregivers, who often give up hours at work or leave the workforce entirely to ensure the health and safety of their loved ones. An estimated 181,000 Mainers serve as unpaid family caregivers

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland) and Assistant House Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier (D-Lewiston) — the two chairs of the legislative paid leave commission that released its report Tuesday — also spoke at the press conference. Daughtry said she is excited to move forward with introducing a paid leave bill based on the commission’s recommendations that she hopes will allow Mainers to take time off when they need to. Cloutier added that Mainers need paid leave now, and that such a program would have allowed her to more easily take care of her mother, who had to move in with her due to Alzheimer’s disease even as Cloutier and her husband still had to work.

“I was blessed to have this time with my mother, and I would not change our decision to take her into our home,” Cloutier said. “I only wish we’d been able to take some time away from our jobs to do it. I have no doubt that our time together would have been less stressful and more meaningful for all of us.”  

In its report, the legislative paid leave commission — made up of a bipartisan group of lawmakers along with workers’ rights advocates, policy experts and members of the business community — recommended a program with paid leave benefits starting in 2025 that would allow workers to take 12 weeks off per event and 16 weeks maximum in a year (if there are multiple events for which they need paid leave). 

The commission wrote that the program should cover all Mainer workers, including full-time, part-time, seasonal and temporary employees.  

As bill takes shape, proponents urge lawmakers to pass strong paid leave policy
Destie Hohman Sprague speaks in favor of paid leave last year | Beacon

The commission recommended the program be funded with a small payroll tax and suggested that employers with less than 15 workers on staff be exempt from contributing to the program, adding that employers with 15 or more workers would contribute based on a percentage of workers’ wages.

However, the commission did not land on an exact recommendation for what percentage of the program’s funding should come from employers versus workers. Instead, the group provided a range, saying it should be somewhere between a 25% employer-75% worker contribution split and a 50% employer and 50% worker contribution split. On the level of pay workers should get through the program, a majority of members of the commission support a 90% wage replacement rate and a maximum replacement rate of 120% of the state average weekly wage. 

Another area where the commission did not put forward a specific recommendation is the question of whether the program should be administered by the state or a third party, although it said oversight will be crucial regardless of which path is taken. Paid leave advocates, such as Maine Equal Justice, have expressed concern about potentially having a non-governmental, private group administer the policy. 

The push to pass paid family and medical leave through the legislature comes as advocates have also launched a referendum campaign to ensure the policy happens one way or another. 

That campaign, which would put a program providing up to 16 weeks of paid leave in a year and a maximum of 12 weeks for a single event on the ballot for Mainers to vote on, is being spearheaded by Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby. The policy would be paid for by both employers and employees — with large businesses contributing a higher proportion toward the fund — and would replace wages equal to or less than 50% of the state weekly average wage at 90% and wages more than 50% of the state weekly average at 65%. 

The groups spent much of the latter part of 2022 gathering more than 80,000 signatures in support of the referendum, exceeding the number needed to put the policy on the ballot. However, the campaign decided to not move forward with a November 2023 referendum, instead opting to hold the signatures for a potential ballot initiative in 2024 if the legislature fails to pass a paid leave policy.