Pointing to harmful health effects associated with not having time off when needed, advocates on Wednesday unveiled an open letter signed by over 130 medical professionals in Maine calling on lawmakers to establish a statewide paid family and medical leave policy.
“As health professionals, we swore an oath to take care of our patients: aiding them when they’re sick, alleviating pain where we can, and promoting good health,” the open letter — released by the group Mainers for Working Families — reads. “The current system of unpaid leave creates undue stress and burden on patients seeking care as well as their loved ones who often act as caretakers. This is why we support the creation of a paid family and medical leave program in Maine.”
Paid leave programs are generally set up for workers to take significant time off for events such as a long-term illness, welcoming a new child or taking care of a loved one, among other situations. Because workers receive pay during this time, such programs prevent them from having to choose between their finances and the health of themselves and their family.
As Beacon previously reported, the legislature is expected to consider a proposal to create a paid leave system for Maine this year. The details of the proposed bill have not yet been released, but a legislative commission tasked with investigating the issue has provided recommendations that are expected to serve as the basis of the measure lawmakers will take up.
Those recommendations include creating a program with paid leave benefits starting in 2025 that would allow workers to take up to 12 weeks off per event and 16 weeks per year (if there are multiple events for which they need paid leave).
The commission also stated that the program should cover all Mainer workers — including those who are full-time, part-time, seasonal and temporary — and should be funded through contributions by both employers and employees. Employers with fewer than 15 workers on staff would be exempt from contributing to the program, under the commission’s recommendations, while employers with 15 or more workers would contribute based on a percentage of workers’ wages.
The absence of paid leave in most places in the U.S. makes the country a global anomaly, as the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without such a program, prompting 13 states and the District of Columbia to set up their own systems. Some employers in Maine offer the program voluntarily, but just 28% of workers have access to a comprehensive paid leave policy through their employer, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
At a press conference Wednesday introducing the open letter signed by health professionals, advocates and medical experts urged lawmakers to make Maine the latest state to enact a universal paid leave program.
“Every single person should be able to take the time off that they need to care for themselves or their loved ones, but under our current system that’s not the case,” said Dr. Brandon Prast, a family physician and chair of advocacy group Maine Providers Standing Up for Healthcare. “I have patients with all different types of needs who have come to me for care over the years. Many of them are directly affected by this lack of paid family and medical leave.”
Prast said he’s seen people with chronic or severe conditions falling behind on treatments because they can’t risk taking time away from their jobs and other cases where people who have given birth returning to work far too soon, risking their health and their ability to bond with their child.
“As a family physician, I am tired of being forced to watch my patients’ health deteriorate,” he said. “I will continue to fight for paid family and medical leave not just to improve the health of my own patients, but all Mainers.”
Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, agreed that the adverse health effects of not having paid leave can impact everyone from newborns and their parents to older Mainers, many of whom face financial insecurity.
In addition, people who need to become caregivers for family members often have to take time off work and sacrifice financially because of the lack of a paid leave program. An estimated 181,000 Mainers serve as unpaid family caregivers.
Hohman Sprague added that she has often heard the argument that passing a paid leave policy will be too hard or that the program will be too difficult to administer. But those claims ignore the dire need for such a system, she said.
“Every time that we say we are not able to do this, we are choosing instead to sacrifice the health of new Mainers, to sacrifice the health of new parents, to sacrifice the health of older Mainers,” Hohman Sprague said. “It’s time that we make a different choice.”
Sean Whiting of Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund also spoke in favor of paid leave at Wednesday’s press event. He said approving the policy in Maine would especially help people who are already disadvantaged and marginalized in society.
“Beyond all else, paid family and medical leave is an equity issue,” he said.
While advocates are hoping to pass paid leave through the legislature this session, if that campaign fails, proponents have also launched a ballot measure to ensure the policy happens one way or another.
That effort is being spearheaded by Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) and the Maine Women’s Lobby. The policy would also provide up to 16 weeks a year and 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.