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State Legislative Update: The End of Session Blues

Andy O’Brien
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Chuck Webber (NALC), Jonathan Brown (MSEA) and Nick Paquet (IBEW 1253) speak to Sen. Brad Farrin (R-Somerset) on Labor Lobby Day.

The second session of the 131st Legislature ended on May 10th. Throughout the session legislators heard stories of the extraordinary stress workers are experiencing at their jobs. Papermakers shared stories of working 18 to 24 hours at paper mills due to forced overtime; nurses told legislators about their struggle to provide safe care for patients and mental health workers at Maine’s psychiatric hospitals recounted the safety risks they face when caring for dangerous patients at poorly staffed worksites. 

While a handful of pro-labor bills became law, the end of the legislative session was deeply frustrating and disappointing. In the final weeks of this year’s legislative session a number of issues that would improve working conditions and staffing, raise wages, establish worker protections, strengthen apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, and improve retirement security either failed to make it to the Governor's desk or were vetoed by the Governor.

Labor Advances

Wins during this session included a new law (LD 2032) providing majority sign up for workers organizing in the public sector in Maine.

We fought to improve the enforcement of labor protections designed to prevent employer abuses like wage theft. Maine Workers lose tens of millions of dollars to wage theft every year, whether by being paid less than the minimum wage, not receiving overtime pay, not being paid for all the hours they work, or for other reasons.

Until this year, employers who violated labor laws were let off the hook easily. From 2021 to 2023, employers whom the Bureau of Labor Standards found to have violated wage and hour laws paid an average penalty of just $9.61 per violation. Under two new laws (LD 372 & LD 2184)  that passed this session those penalties will increase and the Bureau of Labor Standards will have the ability to better enforce the law.

We continued to make progress on bills to tackle climate change and advance good union jobs in the clean energy economy. LD 1963 will advance renewable energy procurement for energy generation and transmission in northern Maine with strong labor standards. LD 2266 will allow the permitting process to move forward on an offshore wind port in the multi-year, comprehensive state and federal permitting process that is currently underway.

Supplemental Budget

The supplemental budget, LD 2214, was the dominant focus for lawmakers in the final month of the session. In a late-night budget vote on April 5, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee came out with an initial budget proposal. We were dismayed that not only did this proposal not include key priorities for organized labor, but it also did harm to retirees. The proposal attempted to repeal part of an income tax exemption on pension income. We subsequently fought hard to protect pensions, and that repeal was removed from the final supplemental budget that became law.

In addition to the pension tax increase issue, the supplemental budget failed to take action to address urgent issues facing state employees. The State of Maine is devaluing and underpaying state work. That has resulted in one in six positions being vacant, a crisis in short staffing in many parts of state government and the deterioration in working conditions and quality of services for Maine people. We pushed for inclusion of important language fromLD 2121 to improve recruitment and retention in state employment.

Senate President Troy Jackson and other Senators fought hard to include these critical provisions for state employees as well as raising wages for school support staff. We were proud the Maine Senate adopted amendments to make these improvements to the budget, and then let down that the Governor worked aggressively to oppose improvements for state employees and that the Maine House did not consider these amendments. This resulted in passage of a supplemental budget that contains some positive provisions related to school support staffing, housing and other items, but does not make progress for state employees.

Final Day of the Legislature & Labor Priorities That Died & Were Vetoed

We had hopes that after passage of a supplemental budget the Legislature would move forward a number of key bills that were on the “Appropriations Table” and needed funding. Shortly after the supplemental budget passed, the legislature's budget-writing committee voted out approximately 80 bills, including pro-labor measures that would address staffing shortages at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor by adding mental health workers to the 1998 special retirement plan (LD 1761), fund pre-apprenticeship programs that help provide a pathway into union jobs in the building and construction trades (LD 2280), provide federal and state employees with no interest loans during government shutdowns (LD 2113) and improve retirement security for workers in the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office (LD 610). These bills had sound funding mechanisms and we applauded the Appropriations Committee for passing them or planning to pass them out on the final day.

When the Legislature reconvened on Friday, May 10, the Senate moved many of these critical bills forward and sent them to the House. The House then failed to take up these bills due to a shortage of members present and internal disorganization. The Governor also worked to undermine the ability of the Legislature to take action on these key bills and others.

The result is that the following critical labor priorities, that we worked on for two years, all died:

  • Improved staffing and retirement security for mental health workers in state psychiatric hospitals (LD 1761)
  • Funding for pre-apprenticeship programs to open pathways for more workers to good union jobs (LD 2280)
  • Support for federal & state workers during government shutdown (LD 2113)
  • Improved retirement security for workers in the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office (LD 610)

In addition to losing these four bills on the last day of session,LD 1794, a bill that would create a special commission to examine the damaging practice of mandatory overtime in paper mills and recommend solutions, including legislation, to limit forced overtime was sent to Governor Mills’ desk. This bill had won a small amount of funding from legislative leadership. Governor Mills refused to sign LD 1794 and a number of other bills that were sent to her desk on May 10. As a result, the bills were “pocket vetoed,” which is when a bill dies due to inaction from the Governor after the legislature adjourns. 

LD 1794 joins other important labor priorities vetoed by Governor Mills this session including strengthening workers freedom to organize on work connected to an offshore wind port (LD 373), applying the state minimum wage to farmworkers (LD 2273) and guaranteeing farmworkers “concerted activity” protections to be able to discuss wages and working conditions without retaliation (LD 525).  

Finally, throughout this Legislative session we worked alongside nurses at Maine State Nurses Association (MSNA) to create enforceable safe staffing ratios. LD 1639, the Maine Quality Care Act, was historic legislation that would have improved both working conditions and patient safety. In April, this pro-worker bill passed the Maine Senate with a bipartisan vote of 22-13. 

We were proud that the Senate, led by the bill's sponsor, Senator Stacy Brenner, passed the most significant legislation for patient safety that has ever been proposed or passed in Maine. Unfortunately, the bill was not taken up by the House due to lack of support and therefore died. This issue matters deeply to nurses and patients throughout the state and is not going away. We will continue to fight for safe staffing in our hospitals.