Employee benefits aren’t as simple as passing a law

It was “paid sick leave” week in Maine. Monday saw a long, drawn-out public hearing in Augusta requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. Tuesday saw a committee of the Portland City Council move a similar proposal forward within the city limits.

Both efforts have been led by interest groups. Portland’s has been championed by the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, with strong connections to various unions and lobbying groups.

Meanwhile, the pressure in Augusta has been applied by the Maine People’s Alliance, who spent thousands and thousands of dollars on signatures to possibly push a sick leave referendum out to voters. Like the proverbial sword of Damocles, the threat of yet another ballot question hangs above the Legislature’s head.

Portland business owner Dave Aceto speaks in favor of a city proposal to require paid sick leave at Portland City Hall on Tuesday. Patty Wight | Maine Public

The reality is that sick days are a good thing. When people are ill and capable of spreading disease, they should not expose others to their ailments. That is particularly true in medical and food service settings.

And the simple fact is that most employers want to be able to give their employees time off. Many already do. But merely passing a law does not magically make a policy workable or affordable. Right now, the regulatory morass attempting to govern employment relationships is a mess.

If you work for a Maine employer — business or non-profit — with more than 50 employees, you are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually to care for yourself or family members under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. However, you need to have worked for the organization for at least a year, putting in 1,250 hours, or about 24 hours a week.

Under the Maine version of the same law, you can take 10 weeks off every two years as long as you’ve worked for an employer with at least 15 employees for a year. No hourly requirement.

Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act kicks in if you work for an employer with more than 50 employees and you’re working at least 30 hours a week on average. If you want to participate in a 401(k) retirement program, you still probably need to work for that employer for a year to be eligible for the program. Put in 1,000 hours — just over 19 hours per week — and reach the lofty age of 21, and these tax-advantaged programs open their doors.

So how do the paid leave proposals in Augusta and Portland work? Well, they are a bit different from each other, but basically they require an employer to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Employers can require the employee work at least 75 or 90 days before taking the paid time off, but the accrual begins at hour 1.

Confused yet?

This is one of the problems with these well-intended proposals. Navigating the myriad different requirements is challenging for smaller employers; they don’t have dedicated lawyers and human resources representatives at their beck and call. In a perverse way, bigger businesses are advantaged by these laws, since their scale makes it easier for them to comply.

If Maine is going to explore diving deeper into regulating employment relationships — whether paid sick time or House Speaker Sara Gideon’s proposed parental leave bill — then the Legislature should take a considered look at what exactly is already required by law and how everything makes sense taken together. They can try and define a line where a business’ duty ends and government or personal responsibility begins.

Paid sick time is good. Health insurance is good. Retirement savings are good. Parental leave is good. But with every benefit comes a cost than needs real, honest consideration. It is more complicated than simply passing a law.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.