Worker justice wins and losses in the 2024 legislative session

The second session of Maine’s 131st legislature ended Friday, as resistance from Governor Mills and inaction in the House left many important bills to die. While lawmakers made improvements in some critical areas, the session was marked by unfinished business to address the needs of Maine workers. 

With the session behind us, we can take a step back to look at what lawmakers did to advance worker justice, and what work remains. 

New tools for effective labor law enforcement

All Maine workers are entitled to protection from labor law violations, including wage theft. But Maine’s enforcement of certain labor laws have been woefully inadequate. For example: 

  • Employers cited by the Bureau of Labor Standards for violating wage and hour laws from 2021 to 2023 paid an average penalty of $9.61 per violation. 
  • The state was only able to recover 80 percent of back wages in 2023 and just 68 percent in 2021 for workers whose wages were stolen. 
  • The overwhelming majority of wage theft goes unpunished — MECEP estimated that workers lost $30 million in 2017 due to minimum wage violations alone. 

Fortunately, lawmakers this session updated labor law enforcement rules (LD 2184) and granted the Department of Labor new authority to order payment of back wages (LD 372), both of which will ensure more workers get the wages and respect they deserve. To build on that improved foundation, lawmakers in the 132nd legislature should invest in more staffing at the Bureau of Labor Standards to ensure the capacity to enforce existing labor laws is in place. 

Governor again denies modest expansion of farmworkers’ rights

Workers are the engine of our agricultural economy, yet farmworkers have long been excluded from the most basic economic rights including the state minimum wage and the right to organize. Partly due to these exclusions, Maine’s agricultural workers, who are disproportionately people of color, are 4.5 times as likely as other workers to live in poverty.  

Last session, Governor Mills vetoed a bill introduced by Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, which would have finally covered farmworkers under the state minimum wage but maintained their exclusion from any overtime pay. Following that veto, Mills convened a committee, of which MECEP was a member, to explore the issue in more detail and develop recommendations for a new farmworker minimum wage bill to be passed in the second session. After dozens of hours of discussion facilitated by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Department of Labor, the governor introduced LD 2273 which would have required farmworkers be paid no less than the state minimum wage and to be provided a pay stub, but which would deny them access to the courts when those rights were violated. Legislators then amended and enacted the bill to include farmworkers’ right to justice through the courts. On her last day to do so, Governor Mills vetoed the bill. She also vetoed LD 525, which would have allowed farmhands to discuss their working conditions without fear of retaliation. These vetoes were the third and fourth times Mills singlehandedly prevented improvements to the decades-long discrimination against farmworkers under state labor law. 

Failure to protect workers and bolster our care infrastructure

Many bills that had previously been approved by the legislature died due to lawmakers’ failure to act at the end of session 

A slate of bills that had been approved by the legislature but needed one more procedural vote before going to the governor would have helped workers in a variety of ways: 

  • LD 936 would have required job listings to include wage ranges for prospective applicants, a policy that can help ensure workers are on a level playing field when negotiating terms of employment. 
  • LD 1190 would have guaranteed workers a minimum payment when called in to a shift that is later canceled, a policy that helps afford workers, particularly in service-sector jobs, some protection from scheduling volatility. 
  • LD 827 would have afforded workers the right to request a flexible schedule without fear of retaliation.  

Other bills that were on the cusp of making it to the governor’s desk would have made important improvements to our state’s care infrastructure: 

  • LD 1718 would have helped address the direct care workforce shortage by incentivizing providers to stay in their careers by creating an annual $4,000 public higher education benefit for full-time direct care workers for up to four years. Workers could use the benefit themselves or transfer it to a spouse, child, or a grandchild, making it relevant to workers at all stages of their careers. 
  • LD 2199 would have required that child care providers serving households who receive state subsidies are reimbursed by the state based on enrollment rather than attendance. Current practices drive providers away from participating in the subsidy program, making it much harder for working parents with lower incomes to find affordable care for their young children. 

Lawmakers also failed to make progress in adequately compensating educators and public servants. Our schools and state agencies are struggling to retain and recruit workers, largely due to the persistent wage gap that exists between workers in the private sector and in public service. Lawmakers omitted from the budget a measure that would expand recruitment and retention bonuses to state workers and to gradually increase public school teacher minimum salaries to $50,000 per year. The budget did fund a minimum wage for education technicians at 125% of the state minimum wage and other school support staff at 115% beginning in 2025. 

Federal government stepped up in areas where state lawmakers fell short

Making up for lost opportunities this legislative session, the federal government finalized several rules that will significantly improve workers’ rights. 

  • Currently, many employers skirt paying overtime by giving workers empty management titles while maintaining low salaries with few limits to how many hours they must work. While Maine lawmakers failed to pass LD 513, which would have expanded the overtime threshold to ensure all workers who should be eligible for time-and-a-half pay receive it, the US Department of Labor recently finalized a rule to update the income threshold from $42,450 to $43,888 per year beginning July 1. On January 1, the threshold will significantly rise to $58,646, meaning workers earning less than that will be compensated for any overtime hours worked. 
  • Noncompete clauses in employment contracts were originally meant to protect a business’s trade secrets and confidential information, but their current use has ballooned far beyond those original intentions to enhance the power of large employers over their workers. In 2019, Maine banned noncompete clauses for workers earning less than 400% of the federal poverty level, which last year covered those earning less than $54,360. Governor Mills vetoed LD 1496 which would have banned the use of noncomplete clauses outright. Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission finalized a rule banning noncompete agreements nationwide.  
  • The US Department of Labor finalized a rule that will improve protections for foreign farmworkers who are in the US on H-2A visas. Beginning June 28, the roughly 1,300 H-2A workers in Maine will be covered by progressive discipline, just cause termination protections, and the right to engage in concerted activity, protections which Maine-based farmworkers are denied. These workers are also already paid the adverse effect wage rate, which is adjusted each year and in 2024 is $17.80, well above the state minimum wage. 

While these federal actions represent a positive step forward, they could face long, drawn-out legal challenges and are no substitute for legislative action at the state level.