A coalition of 103 small businesses is urging Gov. Janet Mills and Maine lawmakers to pass legislation that would create a paid family and medical leave program, and on Tuesday the group released a letter it plans to make the plea.
The Maine Small Business Coalition, a project of the Maine Public Alliance, is trying to demonstrate strong support for the bill in the business community, particularly small businesses that do not offer paid vacation packages. The coalition is trying to refute suggestions that small business owners will face the brunt of the bill’s costs.
“When we go out into communities, we find that small business owners support policies that support individuals,” coalition director Seleka Bulgar-Medina said at a news conference in Portland. “Small business owners are people, they have families, and they want the things that any other private individual needs in life, in their community and in their community.”
Under the current proposal, nearly all workers in Maine would be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave, based on the worker’s weekly wages and the state’s average wage, to care for a newborn, plus their own extended leave. Illness or care of a sick or disabled relative.
Employees and employers with 15 or more employees on the payroll share the cost of the benefits through payroll taxes.
But the terms are not yet finalized. The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Matty Daughtry, D-Brunswick, and Rep. Christine Cloutier, D-Lewiston, said they are willing to compromise to help pass the bill on May 22. The mills administration recommended changes to the bill, including stricter eligibility standards and lower pay for those who qualify.
The need for reconciliation comes amid opposition from Republicans and business groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine National Federation of Free Trade Associations and a trade group representing hotels and other tourism businesses.
Republican lawmakers are concerned about the tax hike, but the groups said the bill in its current form would put financial pressure on small businesses. Opponents say the proposal would exacerbate ongoing labor shortages and disrupt businesses’ workforces, making it difficult to find temporary replacements, particularly in rural areas.
However, some small business owners disagreed Tuesday.
In a letter to be sent Wednesday, the 103 business owners are urging lawmakers to pass the law to provide employers and workers with “much-needed flexibility and financial security,” Maine People’s Union spokeswoman Nora Flaherty-Stanford said.
“The state paid family and medical leave program will help level the playing field between small businesses and corporate businesses,” said Catherine Rasko, owner of Arabica Coffee, at the news conference. “A paid time off program benefits all businesses, regardless of size. When employees are healthy and ready to work, the entire business community and local economy benefit.”
As a small business owner, Rasko said she wants to support her employees. But she said she can only offer a flexible schedule because Arabica Coffee doesn’t have the financial capacity to pay for extended breaks.
This, she said, limits her ability to compete with corporate coffee chains when trying to hire workers.
Bulgar-Medina said the bill would help ease some of the challenges small businesses face. She believes the bill will improve employee retention rates, encourage workers to move to Maine and reverse workforce shortage trends.
Joseph Brown, a Milo general truck driver, signed the letter because he believes the law provides the necessary protections for him and other self-employed workers.
Brown says he has had “constructive debates” with conservative friends who are concerned about tax increases, calling himself a political gentleman.
Despite the partisan divide in the Legislature — and the perception that the bill would hurt small businesses and workers — Brown said he believes “the good outweighs the bad.”
“It is for the people. It is for the small workers who have no one to stand up for them,” he said.
Not all signatures to the letter are entirely across the board. Wayne Lagasse, owner of RT Farm and Feed in Winthrop, signed the letter but believes the bill would benefit his employees and negatively impact his business. He said that what he really wants is for the people to decide through citizens’ referendum.
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