PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Central Aroostook area employers questioned Maine Department of Labor officials Wednesday on how the state’s new employee earned paid leave statute would affect the migrant and other temporary workers they depend on to harvest crops.
They also questioned how the new statute would apply to per diem workers who provide care to Aroostook Agency on Aging clients.
Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Department of Labor held the informal feedback session Oct. 2 at Cafe Sopresso, during which approximately 20 employers gathered to ask questions concerning the legislation.
On May 28, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law L.D. 369: An Act Authorizing Earned Employee Leave, which gained bipartisan support in both houses of the Maine Legislature.
The statute, which will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, requires all employers who employ more than 10 workers during the “usual and regular course of business for more than 120 days in any calendar year” allow employees to earn one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked, up to 40 hours for one year. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees and seasonal businesses that operate less than 26 weeks in a calendar year will be exempt.
Mike Roland, director of the MDOL’s Bureau of Labor Standards, explained that the Department of Labor will serve as the implementing agency for the specific rules concerning the earned employee leave statute. He and colleague Isaac Gingras, legislative liaison for the MDOL, will travel throughout the state to make note of common questions and concerns in relation to the recently passed law.
The MDOL will use feedback gained from the informal sessions to draft rules for the statute that they will release online for public comment beginning in late March or early April 2020. They will then hold public hearings throughout the state and use comments from those hearings to publish the final rules by the end of summer 2020.
MDOL officials will spend much of fall 2020 holding sessions to education employers about the rules before the statute goes into effect the following year.
“This is an opportunity for us to hear your thoughts and write rules that are clear to everyone,” Roland said at the start of the meeting.
Jennifer Edgecomb, representing the human resources office at Smith Farms, raised concerns on how migrant workers will fit into the employee earned time rules.
“We have migrant workers who work six months for more than 120 days,” Edgecomb said.
Her colleague Charly Collins, also of Smith Farms, related a similar issue in regards to local employees who work temporarily at the farm during harvest seasons.
“We have local employees who work the same amount of time [as migrant workers]. At what point would we have to start taking earned time out?” Collins said.
Roland noted that at this time he cannot provide specific answers regarding most questions brought up at the meeting due to the MDOL not yet being at the stage of drafting the rules.
“What you’re asking are good questions, and you’re going to hear me saying that a lot,” Roland said. “This is one of those issues we’ve seen brought up and that we’re definitely going to address in the rules.”
Julie Doody, manager of human resources and business services for Aroostook Agency on Aging, asked about how the new statute rules could apply to per diem employees — those who work on an as-needed basis. The agency employs per diem homecare employees who work with elderly people in their homes.
“We get reimbursement from the patient’s funding source whenever a per diem employee works with them in their home,” Doody said. “But if we were paying for earned time off we wouldn’t get reimbursed for an employee’s time off.”
After many questions from folks concerning how or if to merge existing employee earned time off or sick leave plans with the newly formed statute, Peter Gore, executive vice president of advocacy for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, provided more clarity to that section of the statute.
“The law allows employers to take their current way of covering earned paid leave and convert it to what will go into effect in 2021,” Gore said. “Whatever paid sick leave your employees earn will become earned time that they can use for vacation or sick leave.”
At the closing of the session, Roland thanked the employers for sharing their comments and encouraged them to sign up for updates regarding the Earned Employee Leave rules by email firstname.lastname@example.org. He also said people may contact him at 207-623-7932 or email@example.com.