AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature 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 on Friday. The vote was 21-13 in the Senate, and 74-55 in the House. LD 1711, “An Act To Enhance Enforcement of Employment Laws” seeks to expand public enforcement of Maine’s employment laws by giving workers more tools to right wrongs.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the way our current laws fail Maine workers from seeking justice in the face of human rights or labor violations in the workplace. Part of the problem is that workers often unknowingly sign their rights to legal recourse away at the start of a new job. The other challenge is that the Attorney General and Department of Labor lack the resources to take up legitimate cases,” said President Jackson. “As a state, we can and must do better. Mainers deserve justice. If the state is unable to take the case, workers deserve somewhere else to turn. These bills would allow folks to access the resources they need in the wake of injustice.”
It would authorize workers alleging a violation of certain labor laws, such as wage and hour violations, 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.
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 fine print 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. First, 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 procedural votes in the Legislature before heading to the governor’s desk for a signature.