Sarah Clemente snuggles with daughter Penelope Clemente, 6, at their home in Charleston, W.Va., on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Credit: Jay Reeves / AP

A new push for a family and medical leave program in Maine faces a tight Feb. 1 deadline to establish details and get an expert’s estimate on the thorny questions of how much it will cost and who will pay for it.

If enacted, its recommendations would make Maine the 14th state with a specific family and medical paid leave law, which would allow paid time off for workers welcoming a child, recovering from a health issue or taking care of a loved one.

The new plan would provide a safety net for employees who had feared retribution or job loss for taking time off, and they would be paid. Business interests, conceding a family and medical leave law will likely go into effect eventually on the state or federal level, still question the potential for abusing the system and how remaining employees will cope with picking up the work of someone on leave at a time when there are workforce shortages across the state. The question of who will pay for the plan also looms large.

“If you build it, they will come, they will use it,” Peter Gore, executive vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said. “You are creating an entitlement and I’m not sure exactly how that is going to be financed.”

In 2019, Mainers provided 79 million hours of unpaid care worth more than $1 billion, according to Maine Paid Family and Medical Leave Coalition, a group of 28 pro-family leave organizations. Only 15 percent of Mainers currently have access to paid family leave at work.

Paid leave was a major topic in Augusta after Democrats took control in the 2018 election. The following year, Maine passed a novel compromise law brokered in part by Gov. Janet Mills and business interests that allows Maine workers to accrue up to 40 hours of general paid leave annually. It went into effect on Jan. 1 at businesses with more than 10 employees, but the new push comes out of a progressive desire for a bigger program.

Gore, who told the commission on Tuesday that he thinks a paid family and medical leave law is inevitable, said the chamber would prefer a national plan rather than have a patchwork of state programs across the country.

That is unlikely in the short term. A contentious national paid leave plan was stripped from President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda in late October, leaving the U.S. as one of a handful of countries, and the only wealthy one, to not have some form of paid medical and family leave.

The commission, created by a Maine law enacted in January, comprises 12 voting members, including co-chairs Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, and Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston. It has held four meetings so far to collect feedback from businesses, nonprofit and other organizations in the state and plans to release a survey soon. It will hear public comments on Tuesday. The commission also is tasked with getting an actuarial review of the costs to set up and maintain such a program.

About 55,000 Mainers could use the program each year, James Myall, an economic policy analyst at the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy, said, basing his estimate on the experience of Rhode Island, which has a long-standing paid leave program.

Myall estimates that Maine workers earning $1,000 weekly would pay about $5.50 to $7.50 to the state-managed program. Employers could pay part of it. But that does not include the $35 million it could cost to set up the program and the annual costs of $3 million to $5 million to staff it.

Those estimates caused Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford, to say he has a “great deal of trepidation about many of these figures.” He said he is interested in learning more about the program, but “I want the cost defined before I buy in.”

The commission also needs to figure out how long people can get paid leave and how much they will get. That’s where it is compiling recommendations from interested parties, including Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, who said the program should include job protection for those who use the program.

She made five proposals to the commission on behalf of the Maine Paid Family and Medical Leave Coalition, including allowing a total length of medical leave of 20 weeks per year and 26 weeks of all types of leave. That is far more generous than Biden’s plan, which was decreased from 12 to four weeks before it was stripped from the proposal altogether.

The Mills administration is not signaling its preference so far. Laura Fortman, the labor commissioner, is a member of the commission, but a spokesperson for the department would not comment on its position on paid leave or what it would like to see in the plan, saying only that it “looks forward to seeing what the commission puts forward to the Legislature.”

Those types of details must be worked out before an actuarial estimate can be done, with Gore saying the cost could have big implications for businesses.

“It’s a big deal when unemployment insurance taxes go up on employers in the state,” he said.