Lawmakers are one step closer to formulating a paid family and medical leave bill that, if passed and signed into law this session, would make Maine the 14th state to provide workers with paid time off to take care of a newborn or a sick family member.
A panel established by the Maine State Legislature, the Commission to Develop a Paid Family and Medical Leave Benefits Program, presented its final report to lawmakers on Tuesday. The report marked the culmination of two years of research into a paid leave policy that included consultations with workers, employers and health professionals.
Out of those talks, the commission drafted recommendations that co-chairs Sen. Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Kristen Cloutier (D-Lewiston) presented to the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee. The legislature will next begin hammering out the details of a bill.
“Today is just the beginning of the process, and I’m looking forward to working with the Labor and Housing Committee and the rest of my colleagues in the legislature in our efforts to craft a policy that’s affordable, accessible and tailored to Maine,” Cloutier said.
The commission is recommending lawmakers pass a policy that would allow most Maine workers to take up to 16 weeks of paid leave each year to care for themselves or a family member, with no more than 12 weeks at a time for any particular event.
Owing to the fact that 77% of Maine workers currently do not have access to paid family leave, the commissioners said they want a policy that applies to the vast majority of Mainers.
“The commission consistently stressed the importance of the program being broadly accessible,” Daughtry said. “Therefore, the commission determined that the program would include all workers. This includes full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal workers. Self-employed workers would be able to opt into the program.”
The commission recommends that people be able to use leave to care for a new child, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, or to attend to certain emergencies related to a family member’s military deployment. Commission members also agreed on the inclusion of “safe leave” for situations arising from domestic violence, harassment or stalking.
The commission advised that the program should be funded through payroll contributions, which the commission recommends splitting between employers and employees. Maine employers with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt from contributing to the fund, though their employees would be fully covered.
The commission further advised that workers receive a weekly benefit equal to a portion of their typical earnings — either 80% or 90%. This benefit would be capped at 120% of the state’s average weekly wage, which is currently $1,240 a week.
Several policy considerations will be left to lawmakers
Passing a paid family and medical leave policy is a top priority for many Democrats in the legislature this session. The U.S. remains the only OECD country without such a benefit.
With a divided Congress, a federal path forward appears for the moment to be closed. As a result, Maine and several states have proposed their own legislation, including Arizona, Iowa, Illinois, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina.
The Labor and Housing Committee voted on Tuesday to include up to $65 million in startup funds in the next two-year budget for a paid leave program.
“We’re just happy to finally be in a place where, after several years of study, this may actually happen for Maine families,” Rita Furlow, the senior policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance, told Beacon.
Furlow said a paid family and medical leave law is needed to retain and grow Maine’s workforce and also alleviate some of the overwhelming demand for childcare.
“We hear all the time about parents who are on waiting lists for childcare that stretch out months or years — and it’s so expensive,” she said. “And we’ve had declining birth rates for decades. If we really want to attract families to live here, we need to support them.”
Recent polling showed that 73% of Mainers support a paid family and medical leave program.
Businesses lobbies, historically opposed to paid leave policies due to the costs to employers, seem to believe this is inevitable in Maine and are asking for a seat at the negotiation table to try to steer towards a policy favorable to employers.
“The U.S. Chamber [of Commerce] said that this is inevitably a policy whose time has come,” Daughtry told lawmakers on Tuesday. “They are shifting from being an organization who would typically say ‘no’ to recognizing that this is something that’s coming down the pipeline.”
The commission did not agree on all policy proposals and held back from making clear recommendations in several key areas. This could set up a battle this session between Maine’s business lobby, who could try to water down the proposal, and progressives, who will be trying to hold lawmakers to pass as bold a policy as possible.
One area the commission did not agree on was whether the program should be administered by the state or a private contractor. Proponents of paid leave laws in other states have criticized privatization for potentially prioritizing corporate profits at the expense of worker benefits.
Another area of disagreement was in the employer-employee payroll contribution that would fund the program. The commission recommended either a 50/50 split between employer and employee, with both paying in less than 1% of a paycheck, or a 75/25 split where workers would carry most of the cost burden.
Another area for debate will be the wage replacement rate of either 80% or 90%. Other states that have passed laws with low benefits, such as California that only gives workers 60% of their regular income, have seen low-income people unable to use a program they pay into.
Proponents of a strong paid family and medical leave in Maine insist that the contribution should be 50/50 split and workers should receive 90% of their wages.
“We need to think about working families and what’s going to be best for them,” Furlow said. “Many of them are living paycheck to paycheck. They just don’t have the wiggle room that maybe higher-income folks have, so they really need to keep as much of their paycheck as possible.”
Destie Hohman Sprague, director of the Maine Women’s Lobby — which together with the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), has collected signatures to take a paid leave policy to ballot if lawmakers do not act this year — also stressed that lawmakers should make bold policy.
“When crafting their final legislation, we encourage the members of the committee to shape a policy that allows low- and middle-income workers to be able to access the time they need and pay their bills and one that offers up to 16 weeks leave,” she said. “We also urge them to require both employers and employees to invest in this mutual benefit.”