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Committee backs bill to empower Department of Labor to more quickly recoup unpaid wages

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Committee backs bill to empower Department of Labor to more quickly recoup unpaid wages

Feb 22, 2024 | 5:30 pm ET
By Evan Popp
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Committee backs bill to empower Department of Labor to more quickly recoup unpaid wages
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Sen. Mike Tipping (D-Penobscot), chair of the Labor and Housing Committee, at a legislative hearing Jan. 23 (Emma Davis/ Maine Morning Star)

With advocates and lawmakers arguing that wage theft continues to be a pressing issue — as workers across the country lose as much as $50 billion per year because of the practice — the Labor and Housing Committee on Thursday advanced a proposal seeking to allow the state to more quickly recoup money employees are owed. 

Currently, the only way for the Maine Department of Labor (DOL) to get workers the money they’re owed is for the department to engage in a court action. LD 372, sponsored by Sen. Mike Tipping (D-Penobscot), would allow the state to directly order the restitution of unpaid wages, damages and interest to workers.

Jason Moyer-Lee, director of labor standards at the DOL, said the current system is inefficient and that LD 372 would lead to workers getting money in a more timely fashion. 

The committee passed an amended version of the bill on a party-line 5-2 vote, with Democrats in support, though several members were absent. The bill will next be considered by the full Legislature. 

The amendment made to LD 372 came in response to concerns from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Moyer-Lee said the DOL sought to address the concerns by adding language to clarify that workers wouldn’t be able to recover unpaid wages more than once and also by narrowing the number of other statutes the bill would interact with. 

But Jacob Lachance of the Chamber of Commerce said while the organization appreciates the DOL’s willingness to have conversations about the legislation, the bill is still not something the group’s business membership can get behind. Lachance did not specify at Thursday’s hearing why the organization’s membership was opposed. 

Democrats on the committee, however, called the proposal a common-sense reform.

“This is ultimately a basic bill that comes down to people should be paid what they’re owed and there should be appropriate enforcement of that under law,” said Rep. Marc Malon (D-Biddeford).  

Republicans were unconvinced. Rep. Dick Bradstreet (R-Vassalboro) said the amended version of the bill was still excessive, although he noted he would support a scaled-back version of the legislation. 

The advancement of LD 372 comes as the Labor and Housing Committee last week voted to support a rule proposed by the DOL designed to strengthen the department’s ability to enforce labor laws by streamlining the process for levying fines and making initial penalties for violations higher.