AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee approved a bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to protect the rights of Maine workers to speak out and take action against workplace violations in vote of 7-5 on Wednesday, with one vote outstanding.
LD 1711, “An Act To Enhance Enforcement of Employment Laws” expands public enforcement of Maine’s employment laws by giving workers more tools to right wrongs. It would authorize workers alleging a violation of certain labor laws to bring a private enforcement action on behalf of the state and in the name of the state after providing notice to the Attorney General, the Department of Labor or the Maine Human Rights Commission, depending on which law has been claimed to be violated.
“All Mainers deserve to work in a safe environment that honors the dignity and rights of workers. Yet, too many Maine workers experience workplace violations, whether it’s wage theft, harassment or safety violations, only to find out that they’ve signed away their right to speak out or take action in the face of injustice,” said President Jackson. “This bill is about giving Maine workers the tools they need to protect themselves and report wrongdoing. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear we need to ensure that workers have the ability to stand up for themselves and their colleagues.
Forced arbitration clauses prevent employees from pursuing justice through the court in response to human or workplace rights violations. Instead, employees must go through a private arbitration process that favors the employer. Forced arbitration clauses often are buried in the fineprint of employment contracts and can be difficult to comprehend. Such agreements limit employees’ legal rights and muffle corporate accountability because there is no public record.
A new report from NELP found that employers who relied on forced arbitration provisions pocketed an estimated $40 million owed to Maine workers earning less than $13 an hour. NELP estimates 225 Maine employers include forced arbitration provisions in employment contracts.
Although Maine has a Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, and laws on anti-discrimination and wage hours, these laws fail to adequately protect Maine workers and can be difficult to enforce. Employees are required to report instances of wrongdoing to employers under the current Whistleblowers Act. This makes it difficult for workers to utilize this law when the employer is the actor responsible for the wrongdoing.
Maine Department of Labor has only five Labor and Safety Inspectors for the entire state, although the department plans on an additional inspector in the upcoming fiscal year. These inspectors oversee an estimated 55,331 employers and 584,143 employees. As a result, many workplace violations go undetected.
LD 1711 faces additional votes in the Senate and House.