In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been steady gains in the overall output of Maine’s economy and workforce, employment levels, and wages for people with the lowest incomes. Yet the pandemic also highlighted underlying issues in our economy that remain unresolved, especially an inability for many Mainers to participate fully in the workforce, and the continued precariousness of certain kinds of work.
Public policy and legislative action are the main ways we can address these shortcomings and build on a robust recovery. The Maine legislature began some of this work in this year’s recently concluded legislative session. They considered a number of important bills to improve conditions for Maine workers, and while there was significant progress on several fronts, some important bills were defeated and a significant amount of work remains for the legislature’s “short session” beginning in January 2024.
Expanding access to care
The supplemental budget contained two significant provisions to help working Mainers who also have to care for a child or a loved one. The passage of a Paid Family and Medical Leave program (originally LD 1964) will allow tens of thousands of Mainers each year to take time away from work to recover from an illness, care for a loved one, or welcome a new child. The program will begin collecting premiums from employers and employees on January 1, 2025, and Mainers will be able to begin claiming leave benefits in May 2026.
The budget also included a significant investment in child care (originally LD 1726) that will raise wages for more than 7,000 child care workers and support more parents to balance work and home life affordably by expanding access to child care subsidies.
Strengthening protections against discrimination and retaliation
Two bills that effectively strengthen existing laws will also benefit Maine workers. The first bill (LD 1703) will explicitly ban pay discrimination based on race for the first time in Manie law. While this practice is illegal under federal law, the creation of a new state law gives the state’s Department of Labor more ability to enforce the prohibition.
The Department also supported a new provision in state law (LD 767) that creates a wide-ranging prohibition against retaliation for employees who use their existing workplace rights. There are several rights covered by the new law, from accommodations for breastfeeding mothers to the right to use the relatively new earned paid leave law. For earned paid leave in particular, fear of employer retaliation is a common reason that workers do not use the leave they are entitled to.
Protecting employee free speech
Workers gained a new protection from employer intimidation this year. A new law (LD 1756) will make it illegal for employers to hold mandatory workplace meetings, sometimes known as “captive audience” meetings. In the past, employers have used these gatherings to thwart collective bargaining efforts by forcing employees to listen to anti-union messaging. The new law will make it clear employers cannot mandate attendance at these meetings.
A symbolic win for immigrants
Unfortunately, the legislature missed some key opportunities to help New Mainers this session. An effort to expand eligibility to MaineCare for immigrants (LD 199) passed the House but failed in the Senate, even after an amendment was offered to narrow the bill’s scope.
Another bill (LD 1138) would have allowed all immigrants to apply for a driver’s license regardless of their immigration status. The ability to obtain a license is important to help New Mainers live and work in Maine. The bill was withdrawn by the sponsor before receiving a public hearing.
One largely symbolic resolution (LD 1050) was passed with strong bipartisan support. It directs the Maine Department of Labor to ask the federal government for a waiver from federal immigration law to allow people seeking asylum to work in Maine as soon as they have applied for asylum. Currently asylum seekers must wait six months before applying for work authorization, making it extremely difficult for them to support themselves in the interim. However, there is currently no provision for such a waiver in federal law, so it appears unlikely it would be granted. Ongoing efforts at federal legislation, led by Representative Chellie Pingree and Senator Susan Collins, may have more success.
Farmworkers rights vetoed
Governor Janet Mills vetoed legislation (LD 398) which would have guaranteed farmworkers in Maine the state’s minimum wage (they are currently only covered under the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour) and included them in some basic workplace protections, such as limits on mandatory overtime and the offer of a rest break after six hours of work. As MECEP previously noted, the current system means farmworkers — who are disproportionately Black, Latino, and Indigenous — are many times more likely to live in poverty than other Maine workers. The governor has promised to reconvene a stakeholder group and to introduce new legislation in 2024 to address the issue.
The legislature carried over two other bills relating to farmworker rights. One (LD 525) would allow farmworkers the right to unionize, a proposal the legislature passed but Governor Mills vetoed in 2022, and another (LD 1483) would guarantee service providers such as health care workers and lawyers have access to farmworkers’ accommodations, which are often owned and controlled by employers.
Bills to raise wages, improve scheduling, and increase access to education all carried over
A large number of worker bills are scheduled to be carried over to the next legislative session. Many passed both houses of the legislature and are awaiting funding, while others are still in committee.
A bill that would have increased Maine’s minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2024 was passed by both houses, but failed to secure the funding necessary for the state to increase the wages it pays to direct care workers via the MaineCare program. The Appropriations Committee also failed to fund a bill that would require employers to include a wage or salary estimate in job listings (LD 936), while bills to ban noncompete agreements (LD 1496) and to make more salaried Mainers eligible for overtime pay (LD 513) were both carried over in committee.
Efforts to address the harms caused by irregular scheduling arrangements were also put off until 2024. One (LD 827) would have guaranteed workers the right to ask for a flexible schedule from their employer, and another (LD 1190) which would have discouraged employers from calling in workers to shifts and sending them home soon after. A bill to address staffing and scheduling practices for nurses (LD 1639) received a favorable vote in committee but was carried over until next year.
Some bills related to worker training will also be carried over until 2024. These include tuition-free access to the University of Maine System, on par with the Community College program (LD 512), a prohibition on employers requiring repayment agreements for job-specific training (LD 741), and a bill to reimburse the costs of tuition for direct care workers (LD 1718).
Despite significant wins, much work remains in 2024
While there were meaningful wins in 2023 — especially the creation of a transformational Paid Family and Medical Leave program — too many good bills to protect and expand worker power were either defeated or set aside. With so many pieces of legislation to take up in 2024, it’s especially important for lawmakers to remember the interests of working Mainers.