Three influential Maine business groups announced Tuesday that they oppose a paid family leave proposal pending in the Legislature, but all three groups also left the door open to compromise.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and HospitalityMaine, a group that represents tourism businesses like restaurants and hotels, all said that they are against the paid family leave bill in its current form.
But statements put out by all three groups also said they are willing to seek a compromise. The announcements came a day after the two lawmakers who sponsored the bill, Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, and Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, said they are willing to make substantive changes to the bill to get it across the finish line.
The groups did not propose specific changes on Tuesday, but are expected to lay out their arguments this week. The bill is before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, which will hold a public hearing at the State House at 1 p.m. on Thursday.
Quincy Hentzel, president and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in a letter to members that the group’s leaders are opposed to the proposal because it does not “adequately address the concerns our members have expressed about the bill.”
However, Hentzel said that “we do intend to come to the public hearing with actionable compromise proposals for the committee to consider.”
The group said in a message to its members that the bill places too much of a burden on small businesses, would worsen the existing worker shortage and offers more generous benefits than other states’ programs.
As the bill stands now, it would impose a payroll tax of 0.7%-1% of wages, split evenly between employer and employee. The bill sets a maximum tax rate of 1%, but the actual tax could be less depending on the amount of revenue flowing into the program. Businesses with 15 or fewer workers would be exempt from paying into the program, but most employees, including part-time and self-employed workers, could claim benefits.
Peter Gore, a spokesman for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber opposes the bill but is “supportive of the policy of paid (family and medical leave), and will be suggesting both alternatives as well as an openness to finding a better solution.”
In a joint statement, Daughtry and Cloutier said they have worked during the past several months to garner support from businesses and “have heard firsthand from employers big and small across the state that are in favor of a paid family and medical leave policy that supports both businesses and their workers. We remain optimistic that the time and energy invested in this effort by so many Mainers will result in the most collaborative and comprehensive paid family and medical leave policy enacted in the United States.”
The program would replace up to 90% of wages for a maximum of 12 weeks of leave for reasons that could include caring for a new baby or a family member with a medical condition. The benefit amount would be equal to 90% of a worker’s wages for income earned up to half of Maine’s weekly average wage, which is currently $1,036. For income earned above that amount, the payout would be 75% of wages.
Nate Cloutier, director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine, said the bill “goes beyond the scope of what is workable and realistic in Maine and we must oppose.”
He said the program “would be one of the most benefit-rich and expensive programs in the country. A Northern New England paid family medical leave proposal would look much different.”
Cloutier also said that they “remain committed” to “continuing discussions” on a compromise proposal.
Cloutier noted that in New Hampshire and Vermont, which both recently approved paid family leave, the programs are voluntary. New Hampshire and Vermont currently have Republican governors, while Maine has Democratic control of the state House and Senate, and Gov. Janet Mills is a Democrat.
Mills has not yet tipped her hand on her stance on paid family leave, but she has met with business groups and the bill’s sponsors.
Daughtry noted in Monday’s news conference that the bill provides hardship exemptions for small businesses, which means that in some cases – such as a highly seasonal business – employers do not have to hold the job open for the worker to return from paid leave.
If Maine passes the bill, it would join the 11 states and the District of Columbia that currently have paid leave laws on the books, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Laws also could be passed this year in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and New Mexico.
If the bill is jettisoned, the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal advocacy group, and the Maine Women’s Lobby have gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot. The groups held off submitting petition signatures this year to see what the Legislature would do.