A group of small business owners and new Mainers entering the state’s workforce met with Rep. Chellie Pingree on Tuesday to discuss her support for federal paid family and medical leave legislation, as well as her bill to speed up work authorization for asylum seekers.
This year, Maine’s First District Congresswoman co-sponsored the “FAMILY Act,” introduced in the U.S. House by Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro and in the Senate by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
The proposed legislation would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income if they could not work because of a serious health condition, or because of pregnancy or while recovering from childbirth, or if they are taking care of a sick child, parent, spouse or domestic partner.
The leave insurance would be funded by both employee and employer payroll contributions, which is estimated to amount to about $2 per week for a typical worker.
Gretchen Jaeger, the second-generation owner of Halcyon Yarn in Bath, says she wanted to meet with Pingree because she believes politicians typically only hear one narrative from the business community: that any mandated employee rights will lead to job cuts and be passed onto their customers through higher prices.
“There is a misconception that a family medical leave policy will be a problem for small businesses,” said Jaeger, who already created such a policy at her business. “We’ve found that that’s an important tool for retention of good employees. It’s allowed us to attract a more diverse workforce than we might have otherwise, people with families, people who might be caregivers for elderly or disabled family members.”
Only 17 percent of workers in the U.S. get any sort of paid family leave insurance through their employers. A measure in the Maine legislature to create a state-level family leave policy was shelved last spring by Governor Janet Mills and state Democrats.
The FAMILY Act has not yet seen a vote in the Democrat-controlled House, and has an uncertain path in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Jaeger believes if Democrats get behind the bill now, it will only build momentum for a federal paid family and medical leave policy.
“I was glad to hear other small business owners reflect on that and give her their support,” she said. “My hope is that she will be able to serve as a model for other legislators, taking a stand on some of these more progressive policies.”
‘Asylum seekers must wait six months before they are eligible to work’
During the meeting, which was organized by the Maine Small Business Coalition, a group of small business owners that advocate for progressive policies, Pingree also talked about her own legislation to reduce the amount of time asylum seekers must wait to apply for a work permit.
Currently, asylum seekers are not eligible to work until 150 days after they apply for asylum. Pingree’s bill, which she re-introduced in May, would allow them to apply for work authorization immediately and be eligible to work after 30 days.
Pingree, who has sponsored unsuccessful iterations of the same legislation in the past, thinks the policy would improve one aspect of an often difficulty asylum claim process that can take years to complete. Specifically, it could streamline entry into Maine’s workforce, where a slow exodus of older workers and shedding of middle-class jobs for low-wage ones has brought deepening worker shortages.
“[A]sylum seekers must wait six months before they are eligible to work,” she said in a 2015 statement. “My legislation would sharply reduce that period, so they can more quickly support their families and add their skills to Maine’s workforce.”
Coeur Ngabo, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been in Maine for one year and is hopeful that he will finally obtain a work permit this October. Like many in his situation, Ngabo and his wife have struggled to meet their most basic needs while he waits for authorization.
“Shortening that period would be good,” said Ngabo, who is currently volunteering with the Salvation Army in Portland, where he teaches computer skills to adults. “You just want to be able to feed yourself and your family through your work.”
The small business owners and new Mainers also spoke about Pingree’s support for the federal New Green Deal legislation and the “Raise the Wage Act,” which passed the House in July and seeks to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.
Pingree was the only member of Maine’s Congressional delegation to back the New Green Deal package.
While freshman Congressman Jared Golden joined Pingree in backing the Raise the Wage Act, Maine’s Independent Senator Angus King has not endorsed its companion legislation in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
(Top photo: Stefanie Trice Gill, a recruiter who works with New Mainers, speaking with Rep. Chellie Pingree. | Stretch Tuemmler)