Maine bill seeks H1N1 prevention

Posted Oct. 20, 2009, at 3:32 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s senate president plans to introduce legislation she said Tuesday could help curb the spread of swine flu while expanding the state’s policies on paid time off.

Elizabeth Mitchell announced she will introduce the yet-undrafted bill during the 2010 session that begins in January.

Her fellow legislative leaders voted unanimously last week to allow the Vassalboro Democrat to put in her bill during a session that’s reserved mainly for emergency or governor’s bills.

Mitchell, who is seeking her party’s nomination for governor next year, said she views the bill as a response to public health officials’ advice that workers with H1N1 stay home until their fever has subsided for 24 hours.

“It’s a responsible approach,” she said. “That’s a cruel piece of advice if you don’t have a paid sick day.”

Mitchell’s bill is likely to meet opposition by business groups, especially as it contains additional provisions that historically have received push back.

Under present Maine law, those who have been employed for at least 12 consecutive months by the same employer are entitled to up to 10 weeks of family medical leave, but it does not have to be paid.

Mitchell’s bill would go beyond that. It would entitle employees of larger businesses — those with 25 or more employees — to up to six paid sick days a year. Those who work for smaller businesses would be guaranteed up to three paid sick days. Employees would have to accrue minimum work time in order to be eligible.

In addition to addressing people who are sick, Mitchell’s bill would cover those who need time off due to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. The bill has support of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence and the Maine Alzheimer’s Association.

The coalition said domestic violence victims need “safe days” to find new homes away from their abusers. The latter group believes the bill would protect nursing home residents, many of whom have dementia, from illnesses spread by poorly paid direct-care workers who work while sick because they can’t afford to take days off.

Business associations are likely to oppose the bill, although its details have not yet been fleshed out, said Peter Gore, lobbyist for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

“This is more than H1N1,” said Gore. “It’s very similar to legislation that was rejected two years ago that mandated paid sick leave.” Gore said businesses opposed that bill strenuously.

Gore said no one wants a sick worker to show up on the job, but he said that Mitchell’s bill, which would foist extra costs on employers, “comes exactly at the wrong time.”

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