AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard hours of competing and often conflicting testimony Monday on a proposal to require that most employers in Maine offer paid sick time to workers.

The proposal by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, would entitle workers at companies with five or more employees to accrue at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked while protecting the jobs of workers at smaller companies who have to take unpaid sick leave. The bill is among a wave of workplace-related measures – backed by left-leaning groups and opposed by business organizations – that will be considered by the Democratic-controlled Legislature this year.

Supporters contend the paid sick leave bill will promote healthier workplaces and classrooms because workers could stay home to care for themselves or a sick child without fear of losing a paycheck or a job.

“It just seems to me that a healthy worker is more productive than an injured worker,” said Steve Turner, a Mechanic Falls resident who had to continue working his two manual-labor jobs last year despite a shoulder injury. “It seems to me that a healthy worker can contribute more to his employer, to his family and to his community.”

But numerous business owners and representatives of trade organizations warned that the bill, if enacted, would be one more financial burden on employers already struggling with a minimum wage that has jumped from $7.50 to $11 an hour since 2016.

Deborah Delp, president of Yarmouth’s Yankee Marine and Boatyard, said her employees’ welfare is a top concern and one of the reasons she bought workers’ plane tickets, paid for car repairs and drove them to medical appointments. But the paid sick leave could cost her family-owned business $90,000 in wages and lost income

“This will hurt my company and many others like it and, therefore, it will ultimately hurt the very people that you are intending to help,” Delp said. “That is a lot of money for my company. If L.D. 369 passes, I will have no choice but to basically retract other benefits I now provide in order to pay for it.”

The debate over a statewide mandate for paid sick leave is heating up in Augusta at the same time that Portland officials also are considering a similar requirement for businesses in the city.

The five-hour hearing before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee on Monday was, in many ways, an opening salvo in the coming debates over workplace policies.

Left-leaning lawmakers and organizations are hoping to capitalize on Democrats winning control of both the House and the Senate as well as Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ election to enact policies that never would have gotten by former Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies. In the next week, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is expected to release the details of a bill that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave – funded by a tax on worker earnings – to allow workers to care for a new baby, an adoption or a sick family member.

Lawmakers also face the prospect of a statewide ballot referendum on paid sick leave if they are unable or unwilling to pass a bill. Peter Gore, vice president for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said that “no language change will make the proposal any more affordable for some small businesses.” However, Gore said he and other business representatives were willing to meet with Millett and supporters to work on changes that would make it more manageable.

“I would prefer to work with you on the bill on a proposal than have it go to referendum,” Gore said. “I think I am being absolutely clear with you guys.”

Taryn Hallweaver, legislative director for the liberal advocacy organization the Maine People’s Alliance, said her group already has collected nearly 70,000 signatures in support of a “universal paid sick leave” referendum measure. After last November’s elections, the organization opted not to seek placement on the 2019 ballot because of the political changes in Augusta. But the organization could still qualify for a ballot in 2020.

“I am very, very hopeful that we can come out with a strong policy,” Hallweaver told the committee. “And we have noted that and there is eagerness on both sides to work through the legislative process on this.”

Business owners testified on both sides of Millett’s bill.

Gale White and McGinley Jones, the husband-wife team who own Lubec Brewing Company in Washington County, already offer their roughly 20 employees paid sick leave and support mandating the same statewide.

The couple pointed out that 10 other states – including Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut – already require companies to offer workers paid sick days. Adopting the policy could make Maine more attractive to younger workers at a time when many businesses are struggling to recruit and retain workers in addition to promoting a healthier workforce.

“No one should ever be put in a position to choose between coming to work sick and losing their job,” White said.

Likewise, Portland Paddle owner Zack Anchors said his employees only used “a fairly small amount” of the sick time made available to them since he began offering it last summer.

“It was an investment, a small investment in the well-being of my staff,” Anchors said. “And it led to a boost in morale.”

But other business owners warned that mandating paid family leave could be so costly that it could backfire, forcing them to reduce their workforce, scale back other benefits or worse.

Allyson Cavaretta, whose family owns Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, predicted the bill could cost her business $85,000 a year and, by her calculations, would cost similar businesses in her town alone $2.9 million.

“It would immediately cause our business and many others to look long and hard at how to afford such a burden,” Cavaretta said.

Millett has offered to meet with business representatives and others to work on potential changes as long as they are willing partners. The Mills administration neither supported nor opposed the bill Monday, but Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman testified that she was eager to meet with stakeholders “to help ensure that the earned sick time proposal works for small businesses as well as their hard-working employees.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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