Inside Augusta

It didn’t take long for tax increases to be proposed in Augusta

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It was only a matter of time, right?

In a piece that read more like political advocacy than real journalism, the Portland Press Herald last week reported that House Speaker Sara Gideon is sponsoring a bill this session to provide Maine workers with up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. The measure would be funded through a new 0.5 percent tax on worker earnings.

Under the bill, family and medical leave could be used for the birth of a new child or to take care of oneself or loved ones during a major illness. All funds collected through the program would go into a statewide insurance pool that would be used to make payments to workers while on leave.

Workers could receive between 67 and 90 percent of their pay, capped at $800 per week. Lower income workers would receive a larger share of their pay, but no one utilizing the program could receive more than $800 weekly, regardless of income.

“Most other industrialized countries have paid leave benefits,” writes author Joe Lawlor, who notes Maine could join the elite company of California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington by enacting its own paid medical leave program. Surely no states are finer stewards of public funds than these ones.

According to Speaker Gideon, such a program would give Maine a “competitive advantage” over states that don’t offer paid family medical leave, yet data show that people are leaving these same high tax states in favor of ones with lower tax burdens. Of course, the speaker’s statement examines only the potential benefit of establishing a paid medical leave program without consideration of what workers must forfeit to receive these benefits – or regardless of if they receive these benefits, I should say.

Certainly, there is no benefit of paid medical leave for the worker who loses 0.5 percent of their earnings and never utilizes the program. But Gideon isn’t worried about these individuals, because family and medical leave should be available to all Maine workers – not just those who work for companies like Wex Inc. and L.L. Bean.

“We shouldn’t think of family leave as an elite benefit, only available at some companies,” Speaker Gideon told the Press Herald. “Everyone in Maine…should have access to this same benefit. It should be like unemployment insurance, there when you need it.”

In other words, Mainers shouldn’t strive to work for some of our state’s elite employers who offer generous compensation and benefit packages. Instead, such benefits should be handed out for “free” to all workers who could one day need them.

What’s the sense of working hard to earn something when you can simply wait for government to give it to you?

Gov. Janet Mills supports the speaker’s pursuits, and its apparent neither party asked themselves what government could do to help businesses establish these systems on their own.

“The governor looks forward to reviewing the Speaker’s bill and working with her, other lawmakers, and members of the business community to pursue avenues to accomplish it,” said Scott Ogden, Gov. Mills’ spokesman.

But notably missing from Gideon’s proposal is a solution for how businesses will make up for lost production while employees take up to 12 weeks off through the program.

Don’t worry, folks. Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, has this one covered:

“Townsend said if workers instead paid into a statewide fund, that would remove the financial burden from employers. That would free up money for companies to pay for temporary replacement workers or to pay overtime to employees when a worker uses the paid family leave benefit.”

So let me get this straight. If we transfer the burden of maintaining a paid leave program from private companies to government, companies will then have the funds to pay for temporary replacement workers or overtime to employees who work more during a co-worker’s absence?

But the companies that currently maintain their own paid leave systems have already addressed the issue at hand – they have decided that they can afford to allow their employees to take leave and have devised solutions for making up the lost production – by hiring temporary workers, paying overtime to other employees or simply eating the costs of lost production.

Why do we need to transfer the burden from companies that operate a paid leave program to government if these same companies have already solved the issue of providing leave to their employees while still maintaining a functioning business? No savings actually occurs in this scenario.

And for the companies that don’t already operate paid medical leave programs for their employees because they cannot afford it, where do their supposed savings come from? There is no money being “freed up” for companies that don’t already maintain a paid medical leave program.

Such statements are devoid of logic and can only be chalked up to empty political rhetoric. If Speaker Gideon – or any progressive lawmaker – wants to make a difference, she’d be asking what allows some companies to offer these benefits and not others, and help foster a business climate that makes paid family and medical leave available privately through every employer.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at The Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at MHPC. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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