Lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday on a bipartisan proposal to explore the feasibility of creating an employee-financed system for offering paid family and medical leave in Maine.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employees of private companies with 50 or more workers as well as public-sector employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually to care for a child, spouse or parent. While that person’s job is protected during leave, federal law does not require companies to pay the employee.

Maine’s has an unpaid family leave law that applies to companies with 15 or more employees. But two state lawmakers, Democratic Rep. Erin Herbig of Belfast and Republican Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough, want Maine to examine options for joining the small but growing number of states offering a paid leave programs.

The pair have introduced a bill that, as originally written, would establish an employee-financed fund to provide up to 66 percent of a person’s earnings when they take leave from work for medical or family reasons. The proposal would cover up to eight weeks of paid leave per year because of the birth of a child, an adoption or to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent or other close family member.

Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, photographed in 2016 Staff photo by Joe Phelan

As proposed, Maine’s Family Medical Leave Fund would be financed through a deduction of up to 0.5 percent from a worker’s paycheck. Participation in the program would be optional for companies with less than 15 employees or for self-employed individuals.

On Wednesday, Herbig said she is scaling back the bill, L.D. 1857, to simply propose an actuarial study to determine the cost and feasibility of such a program in Maine. The actuarial study, combined with a stakeholder’s group, would allow Maine to examine paths forward on the issue, just as New Hampshire recently completed, Herbig said.

At least four other states – including Rhode Island – have implemented paid family leave programs, and there is some discussion at the federal level of a national program.

“Creating a paid family leave medical system on the shoulders of our businesses would not benefit anyone. This bill has never proposed to do that,” said Herbig, the House majority leader. “There isn’t an easy fix but I’m tired of spinning our wheels when there are small steps we can take to creating a cost-effective, paid family medical leave system in Maine that works for both families and businesses across our state.”

Kate Brogan of Portland told members of the Legislature’s Labor, Research, Commerce and Economic Development Committee that she saved up sick days and vacation time so she could take time off when she first adopted her two children. Brogan testified that her employer didn’t offer paid leave for adoptions but the time-off enabled her to bond with her children during a crucial time.

But when one of her sons was subsequently diagnosed with Type I diabetes, she was forced to leave work again to learn to how to care for your young child before her parents offered to care for him while she was at work. Brogan told lawmakers that while she didn’t have paid leave, she felt “extraordinarily lucky” to have the option of accruing sick and vacation time, an understanding employer and nearby family able to help.

“Being able to care for our loved ones shouldn’t be left up to luck,” she said. “I urge you to support this bill to create a system to support those Maine workers so they can care for their kids.”

The bill also drew support from organizations such as the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Maine chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. The original version of the bill was opposed by the LePage administration, however Nina McLaughlin with the Maine Department of Labor said the agency had yet to review the amended version proposing an actuarial study.

Responding to the original proposal, McLaughlin said the bill would require the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation to administer programs that are not permissible under federal law. As a result, implementing and administering the fund could be a “tremendous undertaking” for the bureau that would could carry significant costs for the state.

McLaughlin also raised questions about how employee contributions would be determined, whether reports would need to be filed with the bureau, and if the state would need to set up auditing, investigations and administrative appeals processes.

But Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, suggested that the actuarial study would actually answer some of those questions and that having paid family leave could help achieve the state’s goals of attracting and maintain skilled workers.

“The department is exploring a lot of different ways that we can help gain, train and retain Maine’s workforce,” McLaughlin responded. “This is certainly something that we have looked into, as it is proposed today, and we look forward to seeing the amendment in writing.”

A representative of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce told the committee that the Chamber is aware of the importance of the issue and supports the creation of an actuarial study. But Chamber vice president Peter Gore urged lawmakers to consider the fact that Maine’s staffing shortages also apply to filling temporarily vacant positions.

Curtis Picard of the Retail of Association of Maine also testified neither for nor against the original bill but supported an actuarial study to examine the finances of a paid leave program.

Volk, the bill’s co-sponsor and the assistant majority leader in the Maine Senate, stressed that neither she nor Herbig support imposing additional mandates or burdens on businesses. But she speculated that it could help Maine companies attract and retain employees at a time when many employers face a shortage of skilled workers.

“It would be great that all employers in Maine had access to a tool like this and they could subsidize that tool at whatever level the felt that they could afford,” Volk said.

The date of the work session on L.D. 1587 has not been announced.

 

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