A bill that would end “at-will” employment in Maine has been endorsed by the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, but is drawing harsh criticism from employers.

The committee voted 8-5 Friday to recommend passage of L.D. 553, which would end at-will employment and standardize progressive discipline. The bill is sponsored by the committee’s House chair, Rep. Mike Sylvester, a Portland Democrat.

At-will employment allows an employer to terminate an employee at any time, without cause, explanation or prior warning, provided the action does not violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws, according to Sylvester. Currently, Maine has no provisions against at-will employment.

Sylvester said his bill would prohibit employers from terminating an employee without cause. Under the bill, an employee could not be fired unless the employer applied a three-step progressive discipline process and notified the employee of their cause for dismissal.

Progressive discipline is a way for supervisors or human resources representatives to handle employees who may need to be coached if they are not performing up to the company’s standards, Sylvester said. Employers would communicate with underperforming workers and create a plan to help them improve their work performance. He said L.D. 553 would standardize progressive discipline policy in Maine.

“Growing up in a single-parent household, I understood early on what it meant to lack security in employment,” Sylvester said in a news release. “Knowing that you can go into work and do your best, no matter who you are, what you look like or even if you aren’t the kind of person people like, no matter what your political persuasion or home life and get a fair shake for a fair day’s work is a fundamental human right. That’s all this bill seeks to give Maine workers.”


But the bill has attracted its share of critics, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Executive Vice President Peter Gore slammed the bill Monday in a policy alert sent to chamber members.

“Without question, passage of LD 553 would be catastrophic for Maine employers and our economy. We would be an outlier nationally, as only Montana uses for cause as a termination standard,” Gore said. “Such an egregious employment law would cripple our economic development efforts and put an end to Governor Janet Mills 10-year economic development plan, as no business will want or need to locate here when they can choose 48 other states without the expense or litigation associated with the disaster that is LD 553.”

“The defeat LD 553 is perhaps the most important bill of this session so far,” Gore wrote.

Gore said at-will employment has been the norm in Maine and across the nation for decades. His biggest concern is the belief that the bill would create a private right of action or other basis for suing an employer. He said there would be no limit on the damages employees could seek if they can prove an employer violated its progressive discipline policy.

Several employers and organizations have spoken against passage of L.D. 553, including Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine.

“We are disappointed to see a bill like this introduced,” Picard stated in his written testimony. “It perpetuates a myth that the employer/employee relationship is contentious and hostile. In my 36 years of working the last 20 years working with hundreds or perhaps thousands of businesses of all sizes, that myth could not be any further from the truth. I have met so many business people who go above and beyond for their employees. When you find good employees, you work hard to keep them. No doubt there are some bad apples out there, but they usually don’t stay in business for long because word travels.”

The bill will face possible language revisions and additional review by the House and Senate in the weeks ahead.

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