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Scott Cuddy of Winterport represents District 98 in the Maine Legislature. He serves on the Labor and Housing Committee.
Many families in Maine live paycheck to paycheck. They wonder if they’ll be able to afford groceries that week. They hold off on buying school supplies until they’re sure it’s in the budget. They wait anxiously for the utility bill, worrying this month they won’t have enough. During the pandemic, these fears are even greater and affect even more families.
Because of COVID-19, tens of thousands of Mainers have lost their jobs, businesses have seen their profits shrink, many to the point of closure, and budgets have tightened for families across the state. Now more than ever, every penny counts. Mainers deserve to know that they will always be paid a fair wage, and that they’ll receive their full paycheck when they need it.
Before the pandemic hit, protecting the paycheck of every Mainer was already a priority for the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, and we were able to pass several bills I cosponsored to achieve that goal.
One of the first bills we passed as a committee in the 129th Legislature was a bill sponsored by Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, to protect earned pay. Previously, if a person lost their job and received a payout for unused vacation or holidays, those funds could be deducted from their unemployment benefits. Vacation and holidays are earned while on the job, and should have nothing to do with the unemployment benefits that come to an individual once their source of income is lost. We changed the law to make sure employees get paid out for the vacation time they’ve earned without having it affect their unemployment checks.
The Labor and Housing Committee also changed the rules around how hourly workers at schools are paid. Our schools are filled with educational technicians, custodial workers and other support staff who are essential to the successful education of our students. In the past, support staff could only be paid after they worked their time. So if there were seven snowdays, workers would not be paid for those until they were made up at the end of the year, shrinking their paychecks in the winter months. Some support staff can’t afford to wait for that income, so we passed a law, sponsored by Rep, Jim Handy, D-Lewiston, requiring schools to give those workers an option to receive that pay throughout the year rather than at the end.
This year, our committee finalized a bill that has come up in the Legislature several times before to address the subminimum wage. The new law, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, eliminates exemptions from the minimum wage law that previously allowed certain individuals with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage. There is absolutely no reason that every person shouldn’t be paid the same minimum wage for the hard work they complete.
I am especially proud of a bill the Labor and Housing Committee passed to create a statewide earned time off policy. This policy requires companies with more than 10 employees to offer earned time off up to 40 hours. The law exempts small businesses and seasonal employees. This policy will ensure that 85 percent of Maine workers receive earned pay and can step away from work to care for a family member, visit the doctor or for any other reason without losing much needed income.
These bills were already important, but in the face of a global crisis affecting livelihoods in a way we never expected, these bills have provided some stability and security that Mainers need right now. They don’t solve every problem, and there is more work to do to ensure fair and consistent pay. There’s even more work to do to ensure that we help Maine families get through this pandemic without complete fiscal devastation. But legislation like this is a start.
I look at these bills as a reminder of how important our work is on the Labor and Housing Committee. It is our duty in the Legislature to make sure Maine families are treated fairly, and giving them resources to protect their paychecks is part of that. I will continue to hold our committee to that ideal and to support legislation that brings peace of mind to Mainers.