After a particularly difficult year for Maine workers — during which many people labored under intense pressure and the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Maine legislature enacted several new laws to improve workplace conditions. Other issues remain only partially addressed or completely unresolved and will have to be revisited in 2022 or beyond.
Unemployment Insurance overhauled
The COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented pressure on Maine’s Unemployment Insurance program, testing both its fundamental structure and the systems in place for Mainers to apply for benefits. To address these problems, the legislature passed a package of UI reforms (LD 1564) designed to make more out-of-work Mainers eligible for the program, increase the amount of benefits available in certain circumstances, and establish a program to help people apply for benefits.
Some progress against discriminatory employers
Maine Center for Economic Policy has long advocated for better enforcement of existing laws designed to protect employees from unscrupulous employers. In the biennial budget, the legislature made a vital investment in tackling this problem by adding three new positions addressing enforcement at the Department of Labor, as well as additional support from the Office of the Maine Attorney General. This helps the State to better enforce existing laws against offenses including wage theft and sexual harassment.
While beefed up enforcement capability is an important step, that’s just one way to ensure workers are getting fair treatment on the job. Unfortunately, Governor Mills vetoed LD 1711, which promised to greatly increase the ability of Mainers to hold unscrupulous employers accountable The bill would have allowed workers to sue employers in court when cases involving violations of labor and human rights laws are not taken up by state agencies in a timely manner.
Two bills to increase penalties for violating Maine labor laws also achieved mixed successes. An effort to increase the fines levied against employers (LD 616) passed the legislature but stalled on the special appropriations table for lack of funding. Another bill, LD 1598,would have barred employers that violate labor or human rights laws from receiving state contracts and tax subsidies. The Taxation Committee recommended this bill not pass, stating that it needed further work.
“Ban the box” will help Mainers of color
Maine joined 14 other states in enacting protections for job applicants with a history of arrest or incarceration (LD 1167). These “ban the box” laws prohibit employers from asking about criminal history on a job application. The new Maine law allows an employer to ask about criminal history at an interview provided that the applicant has the opportunity to respond and explain. The practice of running criminal background checks on job applications has been shown to disproportionately impact people of color, who are more likely to be unfairly arrested than white Mainers.
New protections for tipped workers
With the passage of LD 1489, Maine will update its definition of a tipped worker for the first time in several decades. This bill increases the amount of tips an employee can receive and still be eligible for the lower tipped minimum wage. Set at $20 a month in 1967, that threshold had only been updated once, to $30 a month. Starting in 2023, any Mainer who regularly receives less than $175 a month in tips will receive the full state minimum wage in addition to their tips.
Farmworkers still excluded from basic worker rights
Despite favorable votes from the Committee on Labor and Housing, two bills to give farmworkers the same protections enjoyed by other Maine employees did not pass the legislature. A bill restoring the ability of farmworkers to bargain collectively through a union (LD 151) passed the House of Representatives but has been held by Governor Mills until the start of the next legislative session before she decides whether to sign or veto the legislation.
A second bill, LD 1022, which would have made farmworkers subject to Maine minimum wage and overtime laws failed to pass either chamber.
No fix on irregular scheduling
The legislature also failed to address the ongoing issue of irregular scheduling for Maine workers. Even a bill to give workers the ability to request a change of schedule, with no obligation on the employer to grant the request (LD 938) did not get a favorable vote from the Committee on Labor and Housing. Unpredictable schedules create economic insecurity for workers and impact their mental and physical health, and can be especially challenging for parents who need to juggle child care and school commitments. This issue will continue to come before the legislature in future sessions.
Paid leave, overtime efforts continue into 2022
Among the many efforts carried over by the legislature to the second regular session in 2022 are a bill to prohibit retaliation against workers taking paid leave (LD 1338) and a bill to increase overtime eligibility for salaried employees (LD 607).
The legislature also approved a bill to create a commission to make recommendations on a statewide paid family and medical leave program (LD 1559). The commission will report back in 2022 with a plan for the legislature’s approval.
MECEP’s Role in Strengthening Worker Protections
MECEP worked with lawmakers to write and introduce LD 1489 (addressing tipped workers); LD 938 (scheduling); LD 1338 (retaliation against paid time off); and LD 1598 (removing tax credits from discriminatory employers). These bills were substantially informed by MECEP’s State of Working Maine report in 2020 and prior years. Previous versions of LD 616 (increasing penalties for wage violations) and LD 607 (overtime eligibility) were proposed by MECEP in 2019 and helped establish the basis of these bills in 2021.
MECEP worked with partner organizations to craft and support bills including LD 1559 (paid family leave commission), LD 1711 (court enforcement of labor laws), and LD 1564 (unemployment insurance reforms).
MECEP supported other bills through testimony and data analysis, including LD 151 (farmworker right to organize), LD 1022 (farmworker wage and overtime); and LD 1167 (fair chance employment practices).