State officials are preparing new regulations that will make Maine the first state in the nation to require paid time off for most employees.

The law, which was passed in May and goes into effect in January 2021, may give tens of thousands of workers up to five paid days off a year.

The Maine Department of Labor has more than a year to come up with regulations and is seeking public input, said spokeswoman Jessica Picard, although regulators do not yet have a timeline for draft rules or a date when public comments will be accepted. The Department of Labor sent out a statement Monday notifying the public that the new rule will take effect in roughly 17 months.

Peter Gore, executive vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, offers testimony before a committee in Augusta last year. Gore says businesses are looking for clarity on a new paid time off law under review by state labor officials. Photo by David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

Businesses that employ more than 10 workers will have to give paid time off for full- and part-time workers they employ for at least four months, according to the legislation that establishes the regulation.

Employees will be able to accrue one hour of paid time from an employer for every 40 hours they work, up to 40 hours of leave a year. Seasonal businesses open six months a year or less, and employees represented by collective bargaining agreements that expire after the new rule goes into effect, are exempt from the law.

Any business that already offers 40 hours or more of paid time off a year meets the requirements under the law, Picard said. Up to 440,000 workers, or nearly four-fifths of the state’s private sector workforce, will be eligible for paid leave, but the department does not have an estimate of how many workers will be able to claim the benefit for the first time because of the law.

Ten other states have paid sick time requirements, but Maine will be the only one to allow the time to be used for something other than personal illness.

A COMPROMISE, MIXED REVIEWS

Many businesses that opposed the new requirement this session have come to terms with it, said Peter Gore, executive vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

“People aren’t saying they want to repeal it, they just want clarity about application; that is what rule-making is supposed to provide,” Gore said.

Some outstanding issues include what is meant by the “reasonable notice” employees are supposed to give if they want to take earned time off that is not for an illness or emergency, Gore said. Another issue is whether employees will have to use the accrued time off during the year it is earned, or be able to roll it over.

Overall, chamber members were more accepting of flexible paid time off than an earlier proposal to give paid sick leave, because it makes it less complicated for employers, Gore said.

“You don’t care how you are taking the leave, if the person is sick or just wants to take a vacation day,” he said.

Some employers are getting ready to change policies and deal with costs associated with the new law. Governor’s Restaurant and Bakery will have to amend its business to provide paid time off for its part-time employees, about 60 percent of its 300-strong workforce at six locations.

Paid time off, a new minimum wage due to go up to $12 an hour next year and upcoming state bans on single-use plastic bags and foam food containers will have an impact on Governor’s bottom line, said Jason Clay, the company’s marketing director.

“Those are all costs that are coming at us, we will do our best to mitigate those costs without affecting our ability to employ people and taking into consideration our guests and what they pay for a meal,” Clay said.

Chip Gray, owner of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, doesn’t believe the new regulations will pose a problem for his hotel and restaurant. A sick-leave requirement would have been a huge cost, but he already provides paid time off for part- and full-time workers, he said.

If the regulations are the same as the bill that passed “it will be fine,” Gray said. “It’s great, it gives everyone flexibility and treats employees more fairly.”

The Maine People’s Alliance, which supported the sick-leave part of the bill, believes the version that finally passed still needs work, spokesman Mike Tipping said.

This version exempts more employees than the original sick-leave bill and also prohibits towns and cities from enacting their own, tougher requirements, Tipping said. The Maine People’s Alliance also wants to make sure that rulemaking addresses how the law will be enforced.

“I think in a general sense we are excited the process continues to move forward,” Tipping said.

“This is a huge deal for the tens of thousands of Maine workers that don’t have this basic protection; this puts us on the path to be the first in the nation with paid time off for most employees,” he said.