Allowing Workers to Have Their Day in Court

Increasingly, large employers are requiring their employees to sign so-called “forced-arbitration” agreements, which require workers to waive their rights to sue over sexual harassment, wage theft, discrimination and other workplace violations. Instead, employees who sign these contracts are compelled to take their complaints to private arbitration where an arbitrator, handpicked by the employer, makes a decision. With the Department of Labor woefully understaffed to properly handle enforcement of labor laws, workers’ rights groups like my employer the Maine AFL-CIO argue that this practice is allowing many employers to simply ignore labor laws.

However, on February 5, the Labor and Housing Committee will take up LD 1693, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County), which would allow the DOL and the state Attorney General’s office to authorize private attorneys to represent workers subject to forced arbitration agreements in bringing enforcement actions against employers that violate labor laws.

The bill is opposed by business groups like the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which argued in testimony last year that the litigation costs of such lawsuits “could be substantial to the small business even if the lawsuit is dropped.”

Ending School Suspensions and Expanding Tuition Grants for Adults

In recent years, schools across the country have been reconsidering harsh disciplinary measures in favor of more progressive restorative justice approaches. As the nonprofit Promise the Children reports, the number of school suspensions has dropped significantly since 2000 as school administrations have become more aware of how the practice harms young learners, particularly students with disabilities and children of color. In 2018, Boston schools agreed to end all suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade.

On February 12, Rep. Victoria Morales (D-So. Portland) will introduce a measure (LD 2016) that would prohibit schools from using suspension, expulsion or withholding recess as punishment for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It would also require that low-income students in grade six and above be entitled to representation at state expense during expulsion proceedings. Morales’s proposal would provide an exception for students carrying firearms, as the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 requires schools to expel students caught bringing guns to school.

On the same day, Rep. Mattie Daughtry (D-Brunswick) will present a bill to the Education Committee that would allow adult learners to receive support in paying college tuition through the Maine State Grant Program for up to 12 semesters. The Maine State Grant Program provides need-based grants of up to $1,500 to Maine undergraduate students.

Requiring Hens to Be Kept in Cage-Free Conditions

From California to Massachusetts, a number of states have been passing laws prohibiting the keeping of egg-laying hens in cages. Animal welfare groups have long spoken out against the abusive practice, as the chickens can’t even spread their wings in these cramped, miserable conditions.

Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco) is hoping to make Maine the latest state to require egg-laying hens to be kept in cage-free housing. Fortunately, a number of egg farmers have seen the writing on the wall and have already begun making preparations. Egg farmer Dennis Bowden of Waldoboro told Pew Stateline in 2018 his farm already went cage-free years earlier.

Requiring Disclosure of Pesticide Use

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is scheduled to take up the controversial issue of pesticide regulation on February 13. LD 2083, sponsored by Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), would prohibit the use of pesticides containing neonicotinoids unless its “use is necessary to protect the State.” Neonicotinoids have been a topic of intense debate as some studies have linked them to honey-bee colony collapse disorder and the loss of birds. The European Union and a number of U.S. states have restricted their use, but in Maine previous attempts to ban them have faced stiff opposition from farmers and arborists.

Addressing Housing Shortages Through Zoning

With a massive housing shortage that is leaving many Mainers struggling to find a place to live, there is no shortage of ideas about how to fix the problem. On February 12, Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) will go before the Labor and Housing Committee to present LD 1956, which would create a special 10-member commission to review housing shortages in the state for low- and middle-income households as well as state laws that affect local regulation of housing and efforts in other states to address the crisis. The commission would then consider measures to encourage increased housing options and report its recommendations to the Legislature.

Expanding Overtime for Salaried Workers

The Labor and Housing Committee will hear a bill on February 12 that would expand overtime for 28,000 middle-income salaried workers in Maine. Currently, most hourly workers are guaranteed overtime when they work over 40 hours a week. However, salaried workers earning over $33,000 are ineligible for overtime. When federal law first mandated overtime pay in the federal Labor Standards of 1938, 62 percent of salaried workers earned below the threshold amount that automatically qualified them for overtime. However, in 2013, only 11 percent were below the threshold, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

LD 402 would gradually increase the threshold to $55,224 by 2022 and then index it to inflation thereafter. It’s estimated that the proposed law would cover 42 percent of salaried workers in Maine. The proposal is supported by labor groups, including my employer, the Maine AFL-CIO.

“We support this policy because the 40-hour workweek, and the idea that folks working overtime ought to be paid for their extra labor, are fundamental to the social contract of work in our country — but both have been severely eroded over time,” wrote Taryn Halleaver of the progressive Maine People’s Alliance in testimony last year.

However, business groups, including the Maine Hospital Association and Chamber of Commerce, argued that the bill would hurt their bottom lines.

“This bill will increase the costs of hospitals just as it will increase the costs of other employers,” wrote Maine Hospital Association lobbyist Jeff Austin. “Our very rough estimate of the cost to hospitals is approximately $3 million to $4 million per year. This cost would need to be covered somehow. Hospitals generally don’t have the resources to absorb significant new costs.”

Fair Housing for People with Criminal Records

Last fall, the Trump administration proposed a new rule that would weaken the federal Fair Housing Act by allowing landlords to more freely discriminate against renters with criminal history. Under federal law, people can sue landlords if they’re denied housing based on their criminal history, but the new Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule would shield them from lawsuits from prospective tenants if they vet them through a third-party company.

On February 12, Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross (D-Portland) will present a bill to the Labor and Housing Committee that would reverse the rule on the state level. LD 1572 would establish “The Maine Fair Chance Housing Act,” which would ensure people aren’t denied housing solely because they have a history of criminal convictions. The measure would prohibit landlords from considering an applicant’s criminal history until after the housing provider determines that the applicant meets all other qualifications for tenancy. Tenants who experience discrimination would be permitted to file a grievance with the Maine Human Rights Commission. If it’s found to be a violation, they would be allowed to file a lawsuit.

Speaking in support of the measure last year, Meagan Sway of the ACLU of Maine noted that people with criminal convictions face several barriers to living a productive life, including difficulty securing housing, education, licensing and employment. However, groups representing landlords opposed the measure, arguing that allowing former inmates to live in their properties would be time-consuming and costly and potentially put other tenants at risk.

Repatriating Some of that Sweet Offshore Tax Revenue

Rep. Ryan Tipping (D-Orono) is back again this year with his perennial bill to close loopholes that allow large corporations to avoid paying taxes in Maine. The Legislature has considered similar bills in the past, but these efforts have been thwarted by Republicans. The Taxation Committee will hear the bill (LD 403) on February 13. Maine Revenue Services estimates the tax haven loophole costs Maine $4 million in revenue each year. This year, Tipping says he’s confident that the bill will pass.

Making It Illegal to Smoke Pot at Home

You’ve got to hand it to Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec County) — he’s persistent. The former D.A.R.E. officer has led a crusade to recriminalize marijuana following passage of the 2016 legalization referendum, and now he’s back with a new bill to restrict use of the herb. LD 1081, which will be heard by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on February 10, would prohibit smoking marijuana in homes and vehicles where children under 18 are present. It would also prohibit smoking pot in public places where smoking is banned.

Collecting Social Security Numbers from Medical Marijuana Users

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will also hear a bill (LD 2002) on February 10, which would authorize the state to collect and use the Social Security numbers of medical marijuana applicants to ensure that only one registry identification card is issued to each participant.

Requesting Permanent Absentee Voter Status

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will take up a bill (LD 2067) on February 12 that would allow voters to request ongoing absentee voter status so they automatically receive an absentee ballot for each election. A handful of states currently allow seniors and voters with permanent disabilities to apply for permanent absentee voter status. Other states allow it for voters in remote areas without polling places or they automatically send absentee applications to voters on a permanent list.