Everyone gets sick, but thousands and thousands of Maine families are forced to choose between their health and their financial security when a parent or child falls ill. They can’t take a single paid sick day to recover.
No family in our state should have to make that choice. And no Mainers should lose their jobs because they or a member of their family gets sick. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation that would guarantee sick leave for every worker in Maine — including paid leave for employees of companies large enough to afford it.
People who have access to paid sick leave might imagine that all companies, or at least the large ones, offer this benefit. But it’s not true.
Scott Noel has worked at Huhtamaki for 40 years. Huhtamaki is not a small business. It’s a global company with revenue topping $2.8 billion. Here in Maine, it employs hundreds of people at its plant in Waterville, where Scott works.
Despite his decades of loyal service, he said the company to which he’s dedicated most of his life does not offer paid sick time. Calling in means losing a day of pay, and potentially being reprimanded for calling in sick and missing a day of work without notice.
So Scott trudges on. He’s gone to work sick with a cold, or with a fever. He once went to work for an entire week with gout in his foot so bad that it hurt to stand. As a millwright, he can keep his distance from his co-workers if they get sick. But there are other employees who work side by side. Scott says they come in sick, too.
Sick leave isn’t just about public health. It’s about economic fairness. White-collar professionals often take this benefit for granted, while sick leave is nearly unheard-of for many workers in low-income industries. Fewer than one-third of workers who earn $19,000 or less annually have access to paid sick days, compared to more than 80 percent of workers who earn $65,000 or more per year.
Nationally, nearly 80 percent of food service workers — the ones most likely to spread illness if they work while sick — don’t have paid sick leave. More than 1 in 4 working adults in the U.S. report they have been fired or threatened with firing for taking time off to recover for illness or care for a sick family member.
My bill would guarantee that all Maine workers at large companies — those with 50 or more employees — have access to paid sick leave, extending this benefit to more than 230,000 Maine workers. Smaller businesses would be required to offer unpaid sick leave, guaranteeing that no Mainer will be fired for falling ill, whether they work for a very small business or a very large one.
I know that powerful business interests will come out of the woodwork to oppose this bill. Those companies that put profits before the health of their workers will fight tooth and nail against paid sick leave. They will bring a portfolio of sky-is-falling predictions about how paid sick leave will put them out of business.
Don’t believe them. Offering sick leave saves businesses money. The cost of replacing workers — including advertising job openings, interviewing and training new employees — is often very high. Sick leave leads to a more productive workforce, less turnover, and stronger families that have more buying power.
In Washington, President Donald Trump and his allies are working hard to undermine laws and consumer protections that benefit working families. They’ve chosen the path of rolling back overtime protections. Of putting health care back in the hands of the insurance companies. Of striking down rules that required financial service providers to work in the interests of their clients, allowing them once again to pursue their own bottom line no matter the cost to their customers. Trump even tried to install a labor secretary who spent years in the private sector stealing from workers, imposing unsafe working conditions and violating a slew of other labor laws.
Maine can lead the way forward on a better path, one that leads to an economy that works for working families. Universal sick leave will eliminate the fear felt by countless workers that getting sick could mean losing their job. It will guarantee families won’t have to choose between their health and their economic stability. That’s good for workers, for children and for the economy.
Rebecca Millett is a Democratic state senator from South Portland, representing District 7, and the lead Senate Democrat on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.