The Legislature’s labor committee on Wednesday endorsed an amended version of a bill sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, that would mandate paid sick leave for eligible workers at Maine businesses that employ more than 10 people. Credit: Micky Bedell

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine legislative panel on Wednesday struck a bipartisan bargain on a novel paid leave proposal that was watered down by Democrats and welcomed by business groups looking to ward off a referendum from progressives on the issue.

It’s tracking to be the first major legislative accomplishment under Gov. Janet Mills and the Democratic-led Legislature and the provisions would apply to 85 percent of Maine’s workforce. The effort had been at risk of failure due to potential Democratic holdouts in the Maine Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, began as a wide-reaching effort to mandate paid sick leave and now applies to a smaller group of workers. However, it would guarantee general earned paid leave for any reason — going further in that way than the original proposal and other states, including the 10 that mandate paid sick leave.

The new version would apply to workers at businesses with more than 10 employees for more than three months in a year. At those businesses, employees could accrue one hour of leave for every 40 hours worked up to a maximum of 40 hours. It would prohibit cities and towns from enacting their own paid leave programs, as Portland is considering.

The bill went through two revisions from the Legislature’s labor committee and was endorsed by all but one Republican and one Democrat on the panel in a Wednesday vote after weeks of negotiation between stakeholders motivated by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance push to put sick leave on the Maine ballot in 2020. It will now move to the Senate and House of Representatives for votes.

If it carries with simple majorities in each chamber, the bill would take effect in 2021.

Millett’s original bill would have applied to businesses with more than five employees, which was a non-starter with business groups and legislative Republicans, the latter of whom outlined a list of conditions that could allow them to sign onto a deal, including local pre-emption.

The original bill would have applied to 91 percent of the workforce. The liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy estimated that 139,000 people don’t have paid sick leave and would be eligible for it under the new version, while 137,000 have some paid sick time but no other kind of leave.

The referendum push would have gone much further. The version floated by the Maine People’s Alliance would have applied to all employers and time would have accrued at a minimum rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, there was the specter of the referendum and we needed to try to get the best possible deal moving forward that we could,” said Greg Dugal, the executive director of Hospitality Maine, which lobbies for restaurants and hotels.

Taryn Hallweaver, the Maine People’s Alliance political director, said the framework of the bill is “quite strong” and would allow workers to deal with “sickness, family emergencies or whatever comes up in life.” She took issue with the pre-emption, however, saying a new law should be “a floor and not a ceiling.”

After the vote, Millett said it had been a “long road” to produce the bill and negotiations involved many parties “up until the last minute.” Word of the pending deal leaked into the State House hallways last week. The state’s labor laws were on Mills’ desk Friday and Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, credited the Democratic governor with salvaging a bill he had doubted.

The holdouts on the committee came from the fringes of each party: Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, the panel’s co-chair, said he couldn’t vote for it because Portland would be barred from making its own leave law and Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley, opposed it outright.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...