Probing Politics: Paid sick leave proposal hits a raw nerve

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In my work, it always is a challenge to remain focused on ideas, voting records and data. Providing information about legislation and its consequences allows readers or the audiences I address to arrive at their own conclusions. I try to be balanced but, I don’t always succeed. This is one of those moments.

Libby Mitchell, the president of the Maine Senate and a candidate for governor introduced LD 1665, An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1. Who could argue with that? Well, it turns out that a lot of people are opposed to this bill because it has little to do with swine flu.

The bill would make Maine the only state in the nation to force all employers to give paid sick leave to their full-time and part-time employees. Wouldn’t it be great to get paid when you didn’t feel well enough to go to work? Sure, but can a poor state with a failing economy afford to add yet another cost to running a business?

The bill, however, is not just about employee illnesses. The bill also allows you to be paid if you take time to care for your spouse, parents, step parents, children, domestic partner, guardian, siblings or spouse of siblings. It also covers if you or any family member have to deal with domestic abuse issues or mental health matters. And there’s no requirement that the employee has to prove their case. In fact, if an employer asks for proof, the employee could claim retaliation and head straight for litigation. Finally, the bill allows paid sick leave to be carried over from one year to the next.

Last week, the Legislature’s Labor Committee held a hearing on the bill. Those who believe employers should pay for unfunded government mandates lined up to make their case. Most were paid staff for unions and welfare entitlement groups. A spokesperson for a disability rights group declared “this bill is modest in scope” while the representative of the AFL-CIO said paid sick leave should be “a basic labor right.” Advocates for women, state employees, domestic violence groups, senior citizens and family planning all weighed in that paying for this proposal was the responsibility of employers.

Employers who traveled from across the state had a different view.

The owner of Fun Town Splash Town in Saco said he would have to accrue paid sick time for the hundreds of teenagers who work more than 90 days during the year. Another business owner near tears told legislators, “I was ready to hand you the keys to my business and tell you to run it. If anybody wants them, go ahead and try it.”

One opponent after another told legislators that this bill not only was deceptively mislabeled, it would cost Maine’s economy millions of dollars and add to the state’s reputation as a lousy place to create jobs. It also would cost current employees the loss of current benefits in order to pay for a mandate the Legislature is unable and unwilling to pay for itself.

Politically, it appears that Mitchell is using her bill to burnish her credentials as the most committed liberal in the governor’s race. Many pundits assume that 25,000 votes wins the party’s nomination in a crowded field and certainly those who lined up for passage of this bill will fondly remember the sponsor. Unfortunately, the damage Mitchell already has done goes far beyond the State House or her district. The hearing itself has cost Maine businesses thousands of dollars in lost time from work to oppose the bill and hundreds of unnecessary hours of effort. Furthermore, this is the kind of bill that gets national attention of all the wrong kind.

Maine is a state of small, family businesses, most of which are the result of a dream to do better for themselves, their families and their co-workers. As one restaurant owner said, “I’m not in this business to make a lot of money. I just want to do what I love and provide for my family.”

In introducing the bill, Mitchell said “No one in business has said ‘(Paid sick leave) is not a problem.’” She also declared that the bill will be helpful to businesses. However, when asked if she had talked to business people in her district to ask how they felt about her proposal, she said “I do not speak for small business.” No joke, senator.

That certainly was the most memorable quote of the day. With half of all Maine college graduates leaving the state to seek employment and people on the street looking for work, it’s not politics, it’s personal.

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Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future and a Falmouth resident and town councilor. His column is published biweekly, and he can be reached at