AUGUSTA — A bill to create a state-run insurance program that would allow most Maine workers to take paid family or medical leave drew mixed testimony at a four-hour committee hearing Friday.

The measure, sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, would fund the program with a new tax on wages of about .75 percent. That would generate $145 million a year for the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Fund, from which the benefits would be paid, plus an estimated $6 million to $7 million a year in administrative costs.

Eligible workers could take up to 12 weeks of family leave and up to 20 weeks of medical leave a year.

Some Maine businesses already offer paid medical and family leave but others do not, meaning many workers can take only 12 weeks off without pay, after using any sick or vacation time they’ve accrued, as allowed under federal law. While such leave is most commonly used by mothers after the birth of a child, it is also used increasingly by workers to care for elderly family members.

“As human beings in Maine, we, without question, value our families above anything and everything else and it is time for us to put actual policies into place that allow individuals to show and act in that way,” Gideon said, “to be able to care for their infants and their children, to be able to care for their elders and their spouses when common but serious life events happen.”

If the bill becomes law, Maine would join only six other states and the District of Columbia with similar programs.

Among those who testified for the bill was Elisabeth Paine, a Phippsburg resident who lost her husband to Alzheimer’s in 2015. She said taking care of her husband became increasingly time consuming as his illness progressed, and there are few financial supports in place for spouses or adult children who are taking care of a terminally ill family member.

She said paid family leave would increase financial security for those workers while also keeping people in the workforce. Paine said 75 percent of caregivers for dementia patients in Maine are under the age of 65 and 60 percent are women.

“If we leave the workforce to be a caregiver, we are extremely unlikely to be able to return to the workforce at a living wage, let alone at a wage that lets us rebuild our future,” Paine said. Helping caregivers keep their jobs, she said, would prevent them from needing additional public assistance in the future, thus saving state resources in the long run.

Other supporters said the bill would be good for employers as well as workers, because it would create a benefit that would make it easier to recruit and retain a workforce. Opponents, however, said the measure is little more than a tax increase on working Mainers, many of whom would never take advantage of a benefit that they would be forced to fund.

To qualify for the benefits, an employee would have to work for at least 26 weeks in the year prior to applying. Benefit levels are based on a formula that takes into account the state’s average wage, as well as the employees’ own earnings.

Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, told the committee that employees are going to want to use the system once they pay into it and would be legally entitled to do so. But that creates other problems for employers, who are required to hold an employee’s job open until that person returns.

“These holes in adequate staffing will be challenging, especially with the possible increase in employees taking leave that they have rightfully paid for,” Cummings said. She said the policy could have a “crippling effect on employee morale” as the workloads of workers on leave are shifted to others.

Cummings said the policy would also affect production and revenue for businesses, especially those with a small number of employees.

Other bills on paid family and medical leave are also being considered by the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee. One would create a voluntary program that would allow workers to decide if they want to pay into a fund so they could later draw benefits if needed, much like long-term disability programs now offered through private insurers.

While most opponents to Gideon’s bill said they support the concept of paid family and medical leave for workers, they argued that the policy should not be a government mandate. Others questioned whether the proposed tax would be enough to fund the program, noting that initial cost estimates suggested a .55 percent tax would be needed. That figure has since risen to .77 percent. Some urged the Legislature to conduct an actuarial study to determine more precisely what the program would cost in order to calibrate funding more accurately.

Union representatives, meanwhile, said that the program should be at least partially funded by employers.

Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party, took aim at Gideon for the increasing cost estimates of the bill, saying the cost had gone up for Maine workers even before the public hearing had ended.

“The idea of making sure Maine workers can have paid time off when they need to take care of a family member is admirable and we should all share in that goal,” Kouzounas said in a prepared statement. “But this proposal would make the paychecks of Maine’s workers smaller to achieve that goal and we will not support that.”

The bill and others that seek to create paid family medical leave programs will be the subject of a work session before the committee in the weeks ahead prior to going before the full Legislature for additional votes.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog

 

 

 

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