June 17, 2018
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Legislature failed workers

By Matt Schlobohm, Special to the BDN

It’s disturbing that the greatest legislative success this year, according to business lobbyists, is the Maine Legislature’s failure to enact a minimum wage bill and paid sick days, “Business leaders say legislative session went ‘really well,’ wary of next year’s” (BDN, April 28).

Is it possible that during a time of economic hardship, the Chamber of Commerce’s best praise is reserved for lawmakers’ failure to take action to help working families?

Legislators do deserve praise for actions they took this session to improve conditions for working families. The Legislature improved the state’s unemployment law so that workers do not have their unemployment arbitrarily delayed; they took proactive steps to address the serious problem of employer misclassification of employees and failure to provide workers compensation coverage in the construction industry.

Yet, hard economic times called for greater action to help working people. On two issues of crucial importance, the Legislature, and its Labor Committee, in particular, failed to deliver.

Families across Maine have lost hours and taken pay cuts, and thousands have lost jobs entirely. It’s particularly during tough economic times like these that working people need elected officials with the courage to stand up and fight for policies that support Maine workers and their families.

Unfortunately, legislators this session bowed to pressure from the business lobby and missed two opportunities to vastly improve the lives of thousands of Mainers. By refusing to move on legislation to index our minimum wage to the cost of living and tabling a bill that would guarantee more Maine residents the ability to take a paid sick day, our elected officials failed to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of middle- and working-class families across our state. In so doing, they chose inaction over leadership.

For decades, the real value of Maine’s minimum wage has been shrinking because of inflation. For our lowest-paid workers, every year is a pay cut and an increase in the cost of living. Today, a family of four relying on one minimum-wage income — or $1,300 a month — lives nearly 30 percent below the federal poverty line. Everyday, hardworking Maine families living on the minimum wage have to choose among food, rent and heat.

The legislation to “index” the minimum wage would have put the brakes on this downward spiral by pegging the minimum wage to the regional cost of living. Ten states already make regular inflation adjustments to their minimum wages. For years, Social Security has, too — helping keep the poverty rate for seniors below that of other demographic groups.

For parents struggling to support their families, the lack of paid sick days on the job means a single case of the flu means going to work sick or staying home and losing a day’s pay. For some, the choice is much starker — come into work sick or don’t come back to work at all.

The fact is, paid sick days actually reduce costs to employers. Analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and recently corroborated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrate that the initial costs of providing a few paid sick days are far outweighed by savings in reduced turnover and reduced illness spreading across the workplace.

That’s why a policy such as job-protected paid sick days is a job retention strategy — a boost for workers and their families, a benefit to business and also a prerequisite for public health.

Nearly 90 percent of Maine voters support paid sick days because they know with every case of the flu, too many families have to choose between taking their child to the doctor and losing a day’s pay. Voters also understand that when workers go to their jobs sick, they put the health of their customers and their co-workers at risk.

Unfortunately, despite widespread public support, far too many legislators said the answer to economic duress is “hands off.”

To be sure, many legislators did support these bills — and they deserve our thanks.

Yet, on the whole, in this recession, on two pocketbook issues of the utmost importance, Maine’s elected officials are batting zero for two. Instead of taking the lead and fighting to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Maine families, too many legislators took a pass. It’s sad, and for too many families, it’s devastating.

There’s an election in November and most of our state legislators will be on the ballot. When they come to your door asking for your vote, ask them what they plan to do to improve on their batting average for Maine’s working families.

Matt Schlobohm is the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO.

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