Labor advocates plan to rally at Portland City Hall this week when councilors hold a public hearing on a proposal to become the first community in Maine to require private employers to provide paid sick leave.

Some business owners are opposing the idea, however, and several powerful trade groups are watching closely.

Portland’s proposed Earned Paid Sick Time Ordinance would require all businesses in Maine’s largest city to allow their full-time, part-time and seasonal employees to earn up to six paid sick days a year.

Mayor Ethan Strimling is shepherding the proposal through the council. It was crafted by the Maine Women’s Lobby and Southern Maine Workers Center and first unveiled last fall. The workers center is planning a rally before Tuesday’s hearing. A previous rally on Labor Day drew about 200 people.

Advocates say the ordinance would benefit about 19,000 Portland workers – many of those in the restaurant and hospitality sector – who are faced with the difficult decision of whether to take an unpaid day off, which often requires them to find someone to cover their shift, or work while sick, which can spread diseases.

“Sick time is just sort of a basic human right,” Strimling said, adding that the flu caused 71 deaths in Maine this season. “If we don’t figure out how to put better policies in place to prevent the spread of infection diseases, it’s just going to get worse.”

Critics, however, are concerned about additional costs to comply with the ordinance, especially because it would cover part-time and seasonal employees. They are also concerned that workers will abuse the system and take sick time when they do not need it.

Quincy Hentzel, the CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, said the group has not yet taken a position on the ordinance. But it has held an informational meeting to educate its membership about the potential impacts, she said.

Other trade groups, such as the Retail Association of Maine, Maine Innkeepers, Maine Restaurant and Maine Grocers associations, which opposed the statewide effort last year, are also paying close attention.

“There are a fair number of businesses that are really concerned about the ordinance and how they’re going to be able to implement it,” Hentzel said, adding that the chamber plans on surveying its members this month. “It’s a broadly drafted ordinance.”

Portland would be the first community in Maine to adopt such a requirement, but it would join more than 26 other U.S. cities with similar rules. Last year, the Legislature turned down a statewide paid sick leave proposal, which would have made Maine the eighth U.S. state to require paid sick leave.

Portland’s proposal would require employers to give their full-time, part-time and seasonal employees one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Employees could earn and use up to 48 hours a year. Any unused time would roll over to the following year, but would not be paid to employees if they leave their job.

Sick time could be used for an employee’s mental or physical health, injury or diagnosis. It could also be used to cover an absence caused by domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, as well as taking caring of a family member. Any absence lasting three or more days would require a doctor’s note.

The city would be charged with enforcement and would have to investigate complaints within 15 days. Violators would have to pay up to three times the amount of back wages owed and the city could issue a $100-a-day fine.

Portland Buy Local, a group of about local independent business owners, is not taking a position on the ordinance, according to Executive Director Mary Allen Scott. But the group did survey its 400 businesses and 30 individual members.

A little more than half of the 61 business owners who responded said they do not currently provide paid sick time and 69 percent opposed the new ordinance. However, once additional input from managers and other Buy Local contacts was added, support for the ordinance rose to 58 percent. Participants were also allowed to provide anonymous written comments, many of which were critical of the proposal.

“We are glad to collect this feedback to ensure that the City hears from the local, independent businesses that make Portland a unique place to live and visit,” Scott said. “We are hopeful that the responses and feedback will be helpful to City Council.”

The public hearing before the City Council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee will take place at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Council Chambers at City Hall. Committee members will discuss the ordinance again on May 8, when they will receive staff feedback to questions posed last fall.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the committee, said in an email that she has received five to 10 emails from supporters and from 10 to15 businesses concerned about the ordinance and its potential impacts.

Councilors Brian Batson and Pious Ali, who also serve on the committee, did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday or Friday about their positions on the ordinance, or provide or describe the type of feedback they have already received from the public.

Ray said in a blog post Thursday that the committee’s deliberations could stretch into the summer or fall and that the proposed ordinance would likely be amended based on feedback from workers and the business community.

“Considering the implementation of such a policy is a very complicated task, especially as we contemplate the potential impacts for people living, working, and employing others in and around the Portland area,” Ray said. “As the chair of the HHS & PS Committee, I’m pleased to say that the committee realizes this, and that we are working to proceed in a highly transparent and inclusive manner.”

The Portland Public Health director, Dr. Kolawole Bankole, said in a memo to the committee last fall that the ordinance would improve public health. And based on the experiences of other communities, the ordinance was not likely to be abused by employees and would result in a negligible increase in costs for business.

“Research suggests that more widespread implementation of (paid sick day) policies would have a substantial positive (impact) on the well-being of children, families, and communities across the United Stated,” Bankole wrote.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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