As paid family leave gains momentum in Maine Legislature, advocacy group holds off on referendum

Jan. 13—A liberal advocacy group that collected more than 80,000 petition signatures to get a paid family leave referendum before Maine voters has decided to forgo putting the issue on the November ballot because the Legislature is considering a family leave benefit.

A commission made up of lawmakers and experts — including Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick — is crafting a proposal that will go before lawmakers this spring. The commission's recommendations will likely be released within the next two weeks.

Daughtry, in a phone interview Friday night, said she is "confident" the Legislature will approve paid family leave this year. Democrats hold the trifecta in state government, with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and Democrats controlling majorities in the Senate and House.

"We are at a pivotal point," said Daughtry, assistant majority leader in the Maine Senate. "This is my No. 1 priority this year, legislatively. It's the No. 1 transformational policy we as a state can undertake."

Family leave, if enacted, would allow most Maine people to take paid time off work for life events such as the birth of a child or taking care of an elderly or sick relative.

Leaders of the Maine People's Alliance say if a bill stalls out in the Legislature, the 80,000 signatures can still be submitted to the Maine Department of the Secretary of State this summer, and the measure would go before voters in November 2024. For the referendum to go before voters this November, the signatures would have to be submitted this month.

The referendum would need at least 63,067 valid signatures to get on the ballot. Citizen-initiated referendum campaigns must submit validated signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election to get a question on the state ballot.

The MPA and Maine Women's Lobby gathered more than 50,000 signatures for a ballot initiative in just one day — Election Day — last year.

Amy Halsted, co-director of the MPA, said with "momentum building" the group is "focused right now on working to win a strong paid family and medical leave policy in the Legislature this year."

While details are still being worked out — and the Legislature doesn't have to follow the commission's recommendations — Daughtry said the commission is aiming for a 12-week benefit, which in some cases could be extended to 16 weeks.

Daughtry said the commission's proposal will not recommend a specific payroll tax or benefit, but would inform lawmakers of what models they could choose from to create a more- or less-robust program.

But generally, the way paid family leave works is that employers and employees contribute to a tax that would generate revenue for the program. Based on the models of other states and the MPA proposal, employees would typically receive 80% to 90% of pay while taking leave, and the payroll tax would be 0.75% to 1.25% of income.

Employers with 15 or fewer employees would be exempt, but the self-employed would be eligible for the program.

"This will allow the Legislature to see the program costs and benefits, and how it all works," Daughtry said. Mills has not committed to a specific proposal, but she was in favor of forming the commission, and supported an additional $300,000 in general fund money so an actuarial analysis of the proposal could be conducted.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have some form of mandatory paid family leave, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island in New England. California was the first state to approve it, in 2004. In the 1990s, the federal government approved a family leave benefit that allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off without losing their jobs, but it's unpaid.

Previous efforts in Maine stalled out, most recently in 2019. It's unclear how many people would be immediately eligible, but it would affect thousands. For instance, about 12,000 babies are born in Maine every year. A preliminary analysis conducted in August 2022 projected about 40,000 people per year would receive a paid leave benefit.

Daughtry said the issue is "deeply personal" to her, both as the owner of a small business, Moderation Brewing in Brunswick, and because she wants to have children one day. Daughtry said she has seen employees have to quit jobs at Moderation because there was no paid family leave benefit. Daughtry said even though her business — which has four employees — would be exempt, she would still enroll the brewery in the program so that employees would have access to the benefit.

"This is something I've cared about for years," Daughtry said. "I have personally seen how much of a big deal this is."