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Committee endorses bill to create universal sick leave in Maine

BY James McCarthy

4/19/2017
Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Greg Dugal, shown in this 2013 file photo when he took on the dual roles of being president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association and Maine Innkeepers Association, recently testified on behalf of the two groups against a proposed bill that would create universal sick leave in Maine. Dugal stepped down as the leader of the two organizations last May, but remains involved as governmental affairs director for the trade groups.

A bill that would create universal sick leave in Maine, including paid sick leave for 230,000 Mainers who work for companies with 50 or more employees, won an initial endorsement Tuesday from the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.
In a 5-4 party line vote, Democratic members of the committee recommended that the full Legislature pass LD 1159, “An Act To Support Healthy Workplaces and Healthy Families by Providing Paid Sick Leave to Certain Employees,” which is sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth. Four members of the committee, two from each party, were not present for the committee’s work session and have until noon on Thursday to cast their votes.
Millett’s bill would require employers to allow their employees to accrue sick leave at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. Employees would be able to use sick leave to care for themselves or immediate family members, or to take time off if they or members of their family were victims of domestic or sexual abuse.
Companies with 50 or more employees would be required to offer paid sick leave; those with fewer than 50 employees would be required to offer it without pay. 
“Everyone gets sick, but without sick leave, workers are forced to choose between their health and their incomes,” Millett said during the committee’s April 10 public hearing for the bill. “Access to sick leave, as would be guaranteed by this piece of legislation, ensures that no Mainer has to choose between their health and their economic security. It guarantees in a state that values families, no mom or dad is punished for choosing to care for their sick child, or that no child is punished for taking the time necessary to care for a sick parent.”

Peter Gore, vice president for advocacy and government relations at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, urged the committee at the April 10 hearing to reject the bill.
“This bill will add significant and immediate cost to an employer’s bottom line and create a new and burdensome tracking and reporting requirement for every affected Maine business,” Gore stated in written testimony. “The Maine chamber believes this proposal moves our state and our economy in the wrong direction, driving up the overall cost of doing business here, and creating yet another deterrent for employers who are trying to locate or expand their businesses in Maine.”
Opposition to the bill also was voiced by the Maine Restaurant Association, Maine Innkeepers Association, Retail Association of Maine, Maine Department of Labor and a practicing human resource professional who is certified by the Society of Human Resource Management.
Greg Dugal, testifying on behalf of the Maine Restaurant Association and Maine Innkeepers Association, told the committee “any additional cost that will need to be incurred, through programs like paid sick leave or parental leave, just causes that day of reckoning to be that much closer” for two labor-intensive industries that he said are already reeling from higher costs resulting from the state’s new minimum wage law.
“Having to essentially pay two people per shift when someone is ill is another cost that cannot be absorbed by hospitality businesses at this time,” Dugal stated in his written testimony. “There are currently only five states with paid sick leave in the country and with recent increases in pretty much everything associated with running a business in Maine, especially labor, this would again reduce an already shrinking margin.
“Maine already has a ‘family sick leave’ statute,” said Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, with more than 350 members statewide and representing retailers of all sizes that collectively employ more than 85,000 Mainers. “It allows employers of 25 or more employees to allow an employee to use paid leave — whether that time is vacation time, sick time or comp time — to care for a child, spouse or parent.”
Additional concerns raised by Picard:

  • The bill would expand paid leave to include caring “for a family member who is not an immediate family member,” which greatly expands the scope of its impact.
  • The bill is unclear if the “earned paid sick time would need to be paid out as compensation when an employee leaves the business.”

The Maine Women’s Lobby, Maine Center for Economic Policy, Maine AFL-CIO, Maine Education Association, Maine People’s Alliance, the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Partnership for Women and Families all testified in favor of the bill.
Vasu Reddy, policy counsel of the National Partnership for Women and Families, told the committee there is growing support across the country for a “paid sick days standard” — noting that 29 cities, two counties, seven states and the District of Columbia had adopted one.
“Paid sick leave is good for Maine’s workplaces,” stated Taryn Hallweaver, legislative director of the Maine People’s Alliance. “Workers without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely to report going to work with a contagious illness like the flu or a viral infection. Sick employees cost businesses time and money.”
Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said the need for sick leave was driven home to he by personal experience.
“My father, weakened by congestive heart failure, was able to remain home in the final years of his life with the direct support of home health aides,” she said. “He was greatly endangered, however, when one of the direct care workers arrived for her shift with a case of pneumonia. She did not mean my father harm; the pay for that overnight shift represented a week’s worth of groceries. Unfortunately, when my parents pointed out to the agency the danger of having an ill employee present, she was fired. This is but one example of the impossible position workers are put in every day because they cannot earn one paid sick day.”
Millett said her bill, essentially, “is about basic fairness for Maine families.”
LD 1159 now heads to the Senate for an initial vote. Subsequent votes in the House and Senate will follow.