Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, at the statehouse in Augusta in this March 3, 2017, file photo. Credit: Micky Bedell

State lawmakers considered a proposal on Monday to create a paid sick leave law in Maine.

A bill backed by Democrats would require all companies with more than five employees to provide earned paid sick time.

Supporters say the measure would benefit nearly 200,000 Mainers. But opponents say creating a mandate would harm many businesses, and the very workers that the law aims to help.

Everyone gets sick, said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth. And while many salaried workers can afford to take time off work, she said, tens of thousands of other workers in Maine cannot.

“For 198,000 Mainers, staying home to care for a sick child, an aging parent or their own health means losing out on pay. That is unacceptable,” she said during a news conference before a lengthy public hearing on the bill before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee.

“At this inflection point, we would roughly cover 90 percent of employees in the state of Maine, while exempting roughly 33,000 businesses out of 51,000 Maine businesses,” she said.

Her proposal has support from individual workers such as Michele Gonya of Winslow, a mother of three boys who works part time and goes to school. Gonya said she does not have access to paid sick days, which leaves her with impossible decisions when she or her sons get sick.

“What should come first? My health? My children’s health? Or our financial stability?” she said.

Representatives of several businesses also spoke in support of paid sick leave. Gale White of Lubec Brewing Co. said he already provides the benefit, which keeps his staff healthy, happy and more productive. Creating a statewide mandate, he said, establishes a baseline for all employers.

“This will create a level playing field, just like the 40-hour work week, overtime rules, workman’s comp, unemployment. A state formula makes it consistent for everybody,” he said.

But other businesses are opposed to a paid sick leave law. Allyson Cavaretta of the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit says the requirement would create an unreasonable burden for many in the hospitality industry.

“For a hotel such as ours, the annual cost increase would be over $85,000 every year,” she said.

Some businesses say the added cost would force them to make cuts that would harm employees, such as reduced staffing and wages.

Trade groups representing restaurants, retail, tourism and agriculture also oppose the bill. Lisa Turner is president of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association, which represents more than 120 commercial growers in the state.

“Using one of our farms as an example, they hire six people for seven months, and another 12 people for four months. Under this bill, that farm would be liable for 64 days of sick leave if those employees choose to take them,” she told the committee.

Turner said that’s an onerous requirement, considering many farms are struggling to make ends meet following recent changes in state law that boost the minimum wage.

Some opponents urged lawmakers to work with businesses to create a compromise. Democratic Sen. Shenna Bellows of Manchester, a committee chair, also noted during the hearing that the Maine People’s Alliance reportedly has collected enough signatures to bring paid sick leave to a voter referendum.

Many recent policy initiatives that have failed to get traction in the Legislature have landed on the ballot, and that’s a prospect that concerns Millett.

“I would rather us put our heads together, come forward with some good statute and pass it so we can avoid that process,” she said.

Committee members acknowledged that language revisions and amendments are likely before the bill would move on to the House and Senate for floor votes. If the bill succeeds, Maine will join 11 other states that have passed laws requiring paid sick leave.

The city of Portland is also considering a local measure. Some opponents of that proposal have urged city councilors to wait for state action on the issue.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.