AUGUSTA — A group of Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would require Maine companies to provide sick time for workers.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, would require employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick time per year while companies with fewer than 50 workers would be required to provide unpaid sick time.

Most of the state’s white-collar workers get sick-time benefits, but many blue-collar workers do not, Millett said. Without the benefits, some workers can be penalized or fired for unavoidable illnesses.

“Simply put, without sick leave Maine parents face challenges when there is an illness in the family,” Millett said. “If Mom or Dad gets sick and can’t take leave to get well again, they are stuck in a real bind.”

She said people who go to work sick often prolong their illnesses and spread them to co-workers, lowering productivity and hurting businesses’ bottom lines.

Congress, despite efforts by some of Maine’s delegation, has repeatedly rejected legislation to require employers to provide sick time. In February, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he was pleased that President Trump voiced support for paid family medical leave during his first address to Congress.

Under Millett’s proposal, sick time would kick in after an employee has worked at least 30 days and he would accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours per year. This would apply to larger companies providing paid sick leave and smaller ones offering unpaid leave. The bill would also allow employees to carry over unused sick time from year to year. Workers would also be able to take sick time to care for a family member who is ill.

“Sick leave is a benefit white-collar professionals take for granted,” Millett said. “But for thousands and thousands of Mainers, particularly low-income workers, a lack of access to sick leave means the decision to take time off from work to recover from illness or take care of a sick child or parent is a choice between the health of their families and their financial security.”

David Bourassa, a worker at Sappi North America’s mill in Skowhegan, said even some workers in labor unions don’t get paid sick leave. Bourassa said his company’s policy allows a worker to miss only three days unexcused in any 120-day period before disciplinary action is taken, including a written warning followed by unpaid furloughs or even termination. Bourassa said workers often come to the mill sick, spreading their illnesses to others. “It’s just one more reason why we need paid sick leave,” Bourassa said.

But opponents such as Peter Gore with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce said many small employers in Maine do offer sick time, and those that don’t simply can’t afford to.

“If they are not providing it, there is probably a reason why and it is probably financial,” Gore said. “The reality is employers are in the midst of facing skyrocketing health care costs, you have constantly increasing wage and hour costs in the form of higher minimum wages, you have a 3 percent (income tax surcharge on wealthy Maine earners) that falls heavily on the business community and now you want to have this? Where does the money come from?”

Gore also said Maine law already allows workers to use any available vacation or other paid time off as sick time. And low unemployment rates and a tight labor market are already prompting employers to increase wages and benefits to compete for the best workers, he said.

But Sen. Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the lack of mandated sick time for Maine’s working class is a big problem. Jackson, a logger, said he never had a job with paid sick time until he was elected to the Legislature.

“In this country right now we have a lot of working-class people that are having their very meager protections at least being debated about being taken away, so being able to stand up and give working people a little bit of support, I am proud to support this,” Jackson said. He also noted that the law requires workers to earn sick time by working a certain number of hours.

The bill, if approved by the full Legislature, would not take effect until January of 2019.

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

[email protected]

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