Maine’s Commission to Develop a Paid Family and Medical Leave Benefits Program recently solicited public feedback through two separate surveys of employees and employers on the need for and willingness to fund a paid leave program. While these were not scientific surveys with random respondents, the surveys received a substantial number of responses1 which shed light on Mainers’ attitudes toward a potential paid family and medical leave program in Maine.
The surveys showed broad support for a statewide paid family and medical leave program. Almost all employee respondents (95 percent) were willing to contribute weekly to a paid leave fund through a payroll deduction.
A smaller share of employers — but still a sizable majority, 62 percent — also said they would be willing to contribute to the cost of the program. Small businesses were the most likely to participate, with 81 percent of businessowners with fewer than five employees saying they’d be willing to make a contribution. Among business owners who weren’t currently offering some kind of paid family or medical leave, around half cited cost as the biggest obstacle. This cost would be significantly reduced under a universal state-administered program where funding would be spread across all employees and employers over a period of time, rather than potentially falling on a small employer all at once when one of their employees requests leave.
Just over half (54 percent) of all respondents said they had access to a manner of paid leave for family or medical purposes. This is much higher than national surveys suggest — the most recent estimate from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics states 23 precent of employees had access to paid family leave in 2021. The discrepancy is likely because many workers have access to some form of paid leave — for example, temporary disability benefits or partial maternity leave — which cover certain medical and family leave events but don’t represent a comprehensive benefit which would be provided under a statewide program.
Even that limited availability varies greatly by income. While almost three quarters of high-wage earners had access to some kind of paid leave, the same was true of fewer than one in five of the workers with lowest wages who completed the survey. These workers are most in need of the economic security of paid leave because they are least likely to have savings to carry them through a period of unpaid leave.
What’s more, the survey revealed that even when respondents have paid leave, it’s generally inadequate to meet their needs. 82 percent of survey respondents said they anticipated requiring leave at some point in the next two years. Of those, 70 percent said they either wouldn’t take any leave at all or wouldn’t take as much as they need because they can’t afford unpaid leave.
The survey also confirmed other research which shows that women are more likely to experience caregiving needs than men. The survey sample contained nonbinary or gender-fluid Mainers, who were more likely than either men or women to have an upcoming need.
When asked how much paid leave they need, responses varied from a few days to over a year with the average response just under 14 weeks. This broadly aligns with other statewide programs. Benefit length in these states vary widely, from 8 weeks (Washington DC) to up to 26 weeks (Massachusetts).
Employee respondents also showed a strong preference for robust wage-replacement rates, with three quarters saying they would need their wages replaced at least at 80 percent of their regular weekly wage, including 46 percent who would need wages replaced at 100 percent.
Finally, the surveys included several open-ended questions which prompted some revealing responses:
“[I] lived on one income when my children were young while also caring for elderly parents. Seriously sacrificed income and contributions to retirement. Lived on credit cards at times and it took many years to pay down debt.”
“I significantly altered my career aspirations and job searches to accommodate my need for part-time/flexible work for caregiving. If jobs offered significant (more than a couple of days) of paid leave I could have pursued full time work in my field.”
“[My mother] worked four jobs at one point to keep me, my terminally ill father, and herself afloat. I ended up picking up the slack at home while trying to be successful in school.”
“When operating my own small business, my brother died unexpectedly, and I was unable to take time away to grieve.”
“Currently, have a child sick with COVID and have had to take 10 days away from work which is unpaid. I don’t know how essential bills will be paid next month. I have an older child who is disabled. Both of my children also share a diagnosis of autism. Life is hard right now.”
The robust response to the two surveys, and the overwhelming support for the program among respondents should send a clear message to the Commission examining this issue: Mainers strongly value a paid family and medical leave program, and urgently need one to be established. Even among employers, a majority support a program and are willing to contribute. The Maine Center for Economic Policy urges the Commission to move quickly to recommend a policy to the legislature which covers all Maine workers and provides benefits at the level Mainers have shown they need.
 The employee survey received 731 responses; the employer survey received 71 responses.