State labor laws are critical to ensuring basic rights and dignity at the workplace. From the minimum wage to paid time off, accommodations for working mothers to laws mandating breaks during long shifts, these rights enshrined in state law are an essential part of building a fair economy for Maine’s workers.
However, in many cases there is no protection against retaliation by employers who may seek to punish workers for exercising those rights.
For example, Maine’s paid time of law prohibits employers from refusing to allow workers to us the paid leave they have accrued. However, there is nothing to stop the same employer from retaliating against workers who make use of this guaranteed benefit — say by reducing their hours upon return, giving them undesirable shifts, or passing them over for a promotion.
Lawmakers this year are considering a bill — LD 1338, “An Act to Protect Employees’ Exercise of Workplace Rights,” sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Millett — that would protect workers from unjust retaliation or punishment for exercising basic workplace rights.
Employers mete out unfair punishment for workers who exercise their rights
Employer retaliation can take many forms. Sometimes an employer can punish a worker in less obvious ways, for example by denying them a promotion, or moving them to a shift they don’t want. In other cases, the retaliation is open and explicit. Many employers engage in an explicit “demerit system,” giving workers a black mark every time they use their paid time off, meaning that an employee ultimately risks being laid off as a result of using paid time off. Nationally, one in three of the private-sector employees works for a business with a demerit system for absences.1
In the example of the state’s new universal paid time off benefit, fear of retaliation is real for many Maine workers. MECEP’s 2019 survey of private-sector workers in Maine found that one–third of Mainers who had paid time off declined to take time off explicitly because they feared retaliation.2 Workers and advocates raised these concerns when this Committee passed Maine’s paid time off law in 2019, and in the Department of Labor’s rulemaking process in 2020. However, the Attorney General’s office informed the Department of Labor that they did not have the authority to write rules on this matter because the statutory language did not direct them to. LD 1338 would fix this unfortunate oversight.
Anti-retaliation law would protect workers’ rights
LD 1338 expands existing anti-retaliation language in the state’s unpaid family medical leave law to provide employees with recourse when employers retaliate against them for exercising other basic worker rights.
Paid leave is just one example of a right that would be better guaranteed by this proposal.
The law would broaden protection from retaliation to other employee rights and benefits in Maine law, such as the right to a rest break, the right to accommodations for nursing mothers, or the right to compare wage and salary rates with coworkers. The law would also cover several other forms of leave, including unpaid family and medical leave, leave of absence as a victim of domestic abuse, and leave during a public health emergency.
Passage of LD 1338 would also protect the exercise of any future employee rights the legislature would pass. For example, this committee is currently considering a bill to allow employees to request schedule changes.
Fixing this oversight in Maine’s labor laws will protect workers and allow them to fully realize their rights without fear of retaliation.
 MECEP analysis of US Department of Labor, 2018 Family and Medical Leave Act Surveys, public use microdata.
 MECEP Worker Experience Survey, conducted by live phone interviewers between September 12 and September 22, 2019. The survey interviewed 450 private-sector workers in Maine, including an n=50 oversample of workers of color. For more information, see “State of Working Maine 2019,” Maine Center for Economic Policy. December 18, 2019. https://www.mecep.org/maines-economy/state-of-working-maine-2019/