Amy Jane Larkin, 39, was a caregiver for her 100-year-old grandmother, Eva Barnfather, after Barnfather broke her hip this summer. Larkin had to take unpaid time off work. She is advocating for paid family leave, which is coming up in the Legislature this year and also could be on the statewide ballot in 2023 or 2024. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Progressive activists and Democratic lawmakers are reviving efforts to enact paid family leave in Maine, which could give people up to 12 weeks paid time off to care for a new baby or sick relative, or to recover from a major illness.

Amy Jane Larkin, 39, of Arundel, said she knows firsthand how crucial paid family leave can be. This summer, Larkin cared for her 100-year-old grandmother, Eva Barnfather, who was recovering from a broken hip.

“My income went to zero for a few weeks,” said Larkin, a self-employed illustrator. “I was pretty much her full-time caregiver for the summer.”

The push for paid family leave is moving forward on two fronts: A potential ballot initiative, driven by liberal activists, could go to voters as soon as November 2023, or the Legislature could take up a bill next year.

Lawmakers approved a bill last year creating a commission to study the issue, and it is expected to release recommendations next month. Details are still being hashed out.

Meanwhile, the Maine People’s Alliance and Maine Women’s Lobby gathered 51,000 petition signatures at hundreds of polling locations on Election Day. Combined with other efforts, the groups already have collected close to the nearly 70,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the statewide ballot, officials said.


Under the ballot initiative, employers and employees would each pay a 0.43% payroll tax to fund the program, generating hundreds of millions per year. People claiming benefits would typically receive 75% to 90% of their weekly income, depending on how much they earn.

Amy Halsted, co-director of the Maine People’s Alliance, said prospects for paid family leave look promising given the larger Democratic majorities in the Maine House and Senate and Gov. Janet Mills’ decisive reelection.

“We are committed to getting something done,” Halsted said. “It’s so important and so urgent, we are pursuing multiple paths at once.”

Halsted said thousands of Mainers face impossible choices when they have to care for a family member with cancer or a newborn. It’s unclear how many people would use the program, but many thousands would be eligible. About 12,000 babies are born in Maine each year, for example.

Mills has not officially backed any specific proposal, but she supported forming the commission and devoted an additional $300,000 in general fund money to an actuarial analysis of potential impacts, said her spokesperson, Lindsay Crete.

“The governor looks forward to reviewing those (commission) recommendations when they have been released,” Crete said in a statement.


Michael Fern, spokesman for the Maine Senate Republicans, said they are waiting to comment until the commission comes up with a proposal or the MPA proposal goes to the ballot.

But Democrats may not even need bipartisan support.


Eleven states and the District of Columbia have some form of mandatory paid family leave, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island in New England. California was the first state to approve it, in 2004. The federal government has a family leave benefit that allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off without losing their jobs, but it’s unpaid.

Democratic gains in state legislatures should help expand the number of states where paid leave is offered, said Sherry Leiwant, co-president and co-founder of A Better Balance, a New York-based nonprofit that has pushed for paid family leave at the state and national level.

Previous efforts in Maine foundered, most recently in 2019. But Leiwant said she now sees national momentum.


“Legislators are waking up to the fact that constituents really want to see this happen,” she said. “How can there not be some type of paid leave when you have a new child, care for a sick relative or if you yourself have a temporary need?”

Larkin – the Arundel resident who took care of her 100-year-old grandmother – said that if she gotten paid leave, it would have given her family a financial cushion. Not only was she giving up income while she wasn’t working, but being self-employed, she had to decide whether to turn down clients, which could jeopardize future work.

“There’s a fear that when you turn down a job with a client, that they’re not going to come back next time,” said Larkin, who has volunteered with Maine People’s Alliance advocating for paid family leave.

Larkin said her family had to tighten its budget this summer and forgo vacations, and they have it better than a lot of people who have to stop working to deal with family emergencies. She believes the pandemic – with many people working from home and having their children home as well – heightened appreciation for paid family leave.

Most developed countries have paid family leave, including Canada, where parents can take up to 69 weeks off and receive a paid benefit.



The Maine State Chamber of Commerce is currently neutral on the issue because there is no final proposal on the ballot or before the Legislature, said Peter Gore, executive vice president.

But paid family leave could contribute to Maine’s workforce shortage, he said.

“Employers still have to operate, build a widget, provide a service,” Gore said. “There are already issues with the workforce, so we should be sure to look at what is the impact on the workforce you leave behind when you do this. How hard is it going to be to find temporary full-time workers to fill a job when a worker uses family leave? Where are these workers going to come from?”

At a meeting Friday of the commission studying the issue, members went into great detail on potential components of the program. Member Barbara Crowley suggested that employers pay 25% into the program, and employees pay 75%, to make it more business-friendly.

“Keeping the employers with us is very, very important,” Crowley said.

Under the Maine People’s Alliance proposal, employers with fewer than 15 workers would not have to pay into the program, but their employees would still receive the full benefit.


Leiwant of A Better Balance said the “contributions are very small.”

“It’s a cup of coffee every week,” Leiwant said. “What we’ve found is that small businesses benefit the most. The big guys, national companies with fancy HR departments, they are the ones who can afford to give family leave.”

Cathy Rasco, owner of Arabica coffee shop in Portland, said she can’t by herself afford to give her employees paid family leave, but she believes they deserve a paid benefit.

“I know when my employees have a baby, they need extra money and they are just at a very vulnerable point in their lives,” Rasco said. “That’s a time when people need support and should be home with their baby and not feel the need to go back in two weeks.”

Rasco said most people, at some point in their lives, will need paid time off.

“It’s going to happen to everyone, either themselves or a family member they need to support and care for,” Rasco said. “This just makes our society a little bit more compassionate.”

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