A sign requiring masks to enter hangs on the door of The Rock & Art Shop in Bangor on Jan. 6, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

AUGUSTA, Maine — A coalition of progressive groups are trying to get a sweeping paid family and medical leave referendum on Maine’s 2023 ballot.

The measure would make Maine the 11th state to enshrine a full paid-leave program. The signature drive is designed in part to put pressure on the Legislature that will be elected in November to address the issue, similar to an effort that preceded a 2019 paid-leave compromise from Gov. Janet Mills and business interests came out of a wider push.

That law guaranteed at least 40 hours of paid leave per year for any reason to an estimated 85 percent of Maine’s workforce. The new effort would allow Maine workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave at a time or 16 weeks per year for circumstances including a child’s birth, recovery from health conditions and taking care of family members.

The program would begin in July 2026, but it would be funded by a new tax on wages that kicks in a year earlier. At businesses with 15 or more employees, employers and workers would each have to pay 0.43 percent of wages into a fund, adding up to a 0.86 percent tax in all to pay for the costs of the program at first.

That would add up to roughly $430 per year for a worker making $50,000. Businesses with fewer than 15 employees would not pay the employer portion, while self-employed Mainers would only pay the employee portion.

The drive is being led by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby. The alliance’s 2018 threat of a referendum on paid leave was key in prompting a Democratic-led Legislature into the compromise on that issue the following year.

It has been a theme for progressive issues in Augusta. The same groups advocated for the 2016 referendum that has raised Maine’s minimum wage to $12.75 per hour. It followed drives in the Legislature for smaller increases that were killed amid opposition from Republicans and business groups during the tenure of former Gov. Paul LePage.

“Everyone, no matter who they are, how much they make or what they do for a living, should be able to take care of themselves or a loved one in times of illness or other crises without going into debt, risking their job or housing, or making other terrible tradeoffs,” said Amy Halsted, the co-director of the Maine People’s Alliance.

LePage will be Mills’ opponent in the 2022 election. During the governor’s tenure, she has attempted to restrain fellow Democrats on progressive economic issues, including the paid-leave deal with groups including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. A legislative commission is working through the year to present recommendations to lawmakers on a larger paid family and medical leave by 2023.

Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment on the effort, but Quincy Hentzel, the CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the Legislature is a “better venue to advance this issue in order to bring all stakeholders to the table.”

“Time and time again we have seen the dangers and unintended consequences of governing by referendum, and that certainly applies to an issue as complex as this one with so many interested parties,” she said.

Supporters will have to gather just over 63,000 signatures by early next year to make the 2023 ballot. If they succeed, lawmakers would not be able to stop the measure from going to the ballot, but they would be able to advance a competing version for voters to consider.

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...