Paid Family Leave Bills

For many new parents, one of the biggest stresses of giving birth is not being able to spend time with their babies because they don’t have access to paid family leave. But as households have increasingly become dependent on two incomes to survive, a movement has been growing to demand universal paid family leave (PFL) laws, which would prevent families from having to choose between spending time with a newborn, caring for a sick relative, or recovering from a serious illness.

Currently, the United States is one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t have a PFL policy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Among the 185 countries surveyed by the International Labour Organization, the U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only two nations without a paid parental leave policy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 15 percent of private-sector workers and public employees in the U.S. have access to paid family leave.

But this year, Democrats are making a big push to create a PFL law and the Labor and Housing Committee will hear several of these bills on April 19. House Speaker Sarah Gideon (D-Freeport) will present LD 1410, which would provide 12 weeks of family leave and up to 20 weeks of medical leave to Maine workers. The program would function similarly to the unemployment system in that it would be paid for through an employee payroll tax. It would be available to people after they work 26 weeks for any employer in the 12 months prior to applying for benefits. Self-employed people would be able to buy into the program if they so choose.

The committee will also hear LD 1239, sponsored by Rep. Ben Collings (D-Portland), which would require employers with up to 49 employees to provide two weeks of paid maternity leave to an employee who gives birth and one week of paid parental leave to an employee whose spouse or domestic partner gives birth. The measure would require employers with over 49 employees to provide four weeks of paid maternity leave to employees who give birth and two weeks of paid parental leave to employees whose spouses or domestic partners give birth.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), businesses with over 50 employees must provide at least 12 weeks of unpaid family leave to employees who work more than 25 hours a week. And under Maine law, employers with 15 or more workers are required to provide 10 weeks of unpaid leave, as long as an employee has been working at the same place for at least a year. But only 60 percent of workers actually qualify for unpaid leave, and nearly half of those who are eligible don’t take the time off because they can’t afford it, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Currently the District of Columbia and five states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington — have paid family leave programs.

Giving Public Employees the Right to Strike

With the wave of successful teacher strikes across the country, Maine teachers and other public employees are pushing the Legislature to allow them the right to strike, which is currently illegal. On April 17, the Labor and Housing Committee will take up LD 900, which would allow state, county, municipal, university and community college employees the right to strike. The bill would exempt employees in critical safety roles such as fire fighters and members of law enforcement.

Lowering Prescription Drug Costs

The Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee (HCIF) will hold public hearings next week on a number of Democratic proposals aimed at lowering the price of prescription drugs. Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty.) has sponsored two bills, LD 1272 and LD 1387, that would create individual and wholesale prescription drug importation programs to allow the import of drugs from Canada, where medicine is much cheaper.

“After rolling out our prescription drug reform proposal, we’ve heard heart-wrenching stories from people all across the state struggling to afford their medication. The story is always the same, whether it’s about a senior, a working parent or an individual with a chronic condition: Drug companies are raking in record profits while everyday Mainers struggle to stay alive,” said Jackson in a statement. “As lawmakers, this ambitious proposal is our opportunity to stand up and fight for our constituents.”

The committee will hear both bills on April 17. On April 16, Sen. Heather Sanborn (D-Cumberland Cty.) will introduce a bill (LD 1504) to the same committee that would require more transparency in drug pricing between manufacturers, pharmacy benefit managers and consumers. The same day, the HCIF Committee will also hear LD 1162, sponsored by Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc), which would require pharmaceutical companies to disclose the costs of drug production, research and development, marketing and advertising and the actual costs paid upon purchase.

Preventing Wrongful Convictions

In the past few years, a number of high-profile criminal convictions have been overturned by DNA evidence and about 350 of these wrongful convictions involved some form of a false confession, according to the Innocence Project. While it may seem baffling why suspects would confess to crimes they don’t commit, research published in the Stanford Law Review, Law and Human Behavior, and other journals indicates that these confessions were often coerced by overzealous police investigators. The Innocence Project recommends that these interviews be recorded to prevent this kind of law enforcement malpractice.

Under current Maine law, law enforcement agencies are only required to take written notes when interviewing suspects of serious crimes. But on April 17, the Judiciary Committee will consider LD 800 and LD 801, sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), which would require law enforcement officers to record interviews with witnesses and suspects in custody.

Eliminating Toxics in Food Packaging

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will take up a measure on April 17 to ban toxic chemicals in food packaging. LD 1433, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Fay (D-Raymond), would prohibit the sale of food packaging containing phthalates, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. According to the CDC, phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are found in household products like vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils and personal-care products.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health have linked exposure to phthalates to asthma, low IQs and a range of other health conditions. PFAS are also found in several consumer products and are known to cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects as well as tumors in laboratory animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Fay’s bill would provide an exemption from the prohibitions for food and beverage manufacturers with annual sales of less than $1 billion.

Increasing Eligibility for Head Start

On April 17, Rep. Jay McCreight (D-Harpswell) will present LD 1417, which would provide an additional $22.5 million for the Head Start program and increase eligibility for children whose family is affected by substance use disorder or is below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Head Start is a federal program that promotes school readiness for young children from low-income families. The Health and Human Services Committee will hear the bill.

Mercury Amalgam Fillings; Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence Prevention

The Health and Human Services Committee will also consider a bill on April 17 that would curb the practice of using mercury amalgam fillings in dental work. LD 1161, sponsored by Sen. Michael Carpenter (D-Aroostook Cty.) would prohibit the use of mercury amalgam fillings as part of a procedure covered by any dental care program funded or partially funded by the state. The American Dental Association cites several sources — including the Mayo Clinic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, International Journal of Dentistry and The New England Journal of Medicine —which maintain that mercury amalgam fillings are safe. However, some dentists who make up the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology (IAOMT) insist that they are unsafe and can cause mercury poisoning.

On the same day, Rep. Drew Gattine (D-Westbrook) will present LD 1453, which would add preventive, diagnostic and restorative dental services to the limited dental services currently available to MaineCare members over 21 years of age. Sen. Erin Herbig (D-Waldo Cty.) will introduce a bill (LD 1171) to the Health and Human Services Committee on April 17 that would provide $2.5 million a year for sexual assault and domestic violence prevention.

Helping Homeless College Students

A 2017 University of Wisconsin survey found that one-third of community-college students go hungry and 14 percent are homeless. On April 17, Rep. Michael Brennan (D-Portland) will present a measure (LD 866) to the Education Committee that would require institutions of higher education to designate an existing staff member to serve as a liaison for homeless students. The bill would give homeless youth priority for on-campus housing and would require the college to develop a plan to provide them with housing during school breaks. The bill also expands the tuition waiver for state universities and colleges to include tuition waivers for homeless youth.

Saving After-School Programs; Violent Classroom Behavior

President Donald Trump is once again proposing to slash funding for after-school programs for low-income children. On April 17, Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) will present a bill (LD 1347) to the Education Committee that proposes to seek new funding for the After-school Program Fund, including matching funds from the schools that receive the funds and making grants from the fund competitive, in the event that Trump is successful in cutting federal funding.

On the same day, the committee will hear LD 1370, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland Cty), which would provide technical assistance to school districts for violence prevention training. The bill would require a school district to immediately investigate allegations of violent behavior by a student against a public school employee and, if an allegation is substantiated, to institute an action plan to avoid future violent behavior. The action plan would emphasize minimizing suspensions and expulsions and prioritize counseling and guidance services, restorative justice and training for public school employees who interact with the student. The bill would also prohibit school districts from counting time away from work due to injury caused by a violent student against a school employee’s accrued sick leave.

Product Stewardship Program Proposals

On April 18, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hear a bill aimed at diverting various products from the waste stream using stewardship programs that require manufacturers and consumers to fund their disposal. Currently, the state has stewardship programs for returnable bottles and cans, paint, fluorescent lamps, batteries and electronic waste.

LD 710, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), would direct the Department of Environmental Protection to study whether the state should adopt a new stewardship program for mattresses. LD 1431, sponsored by Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle), would direct the DEP to require producers of packaging material to assist municipalities in managing and financing packaging waste disposal and recycling programs. The next day, Sen. Geoff Gratwick (D-Penobscot Cty.) will present LD 1460, which would require drug manufacturers to finance drug take-back stewardship programs.

Local Food; Allowing “Share Tables” in Schools

On April 19, Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc Cty.) will present a bill (LD 454) to the Education Committee that would provide a $1 match for every $3 school districts spend on food purchased from local farmers. On the same day, the Health and Human Services Committee will consider LD 577, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan (D-Portland), which would direct the state to participate in the federal food program to serve at-risk students who attend after-school programming.

The committee will also hear a proposal promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cut down on food waste by allowing hungry students to have unused cafeteria food. LD 1351, sponsored by Sen. Stacey Guerin (D-Penobscot Cty.), would seek to allow school staff and students to collect unused cafeteria food that was taken from the food service line and put it on a “share table” for other students. Currently, about one in five Maine children experience hunger, but the U.S. wastes about 40 percent of its food supply, according to the USDA.