Pres. Jackson introduces legislation to protect workers

AUGUSTA — Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Amy Roeder, D-Bangor, introduced legislation to protect the rights of Mainer workers to speak up and take action against workplace violations at a press conference, followed by a public hearing on Friday. Lawmakers were joined by Destie Hohman Sprague of the Maine Women’s Lobby, Hugh Baran of the National Employment Law Project, and three Maine workers failed by Maine’s current employment laws.
 
“All Mainers deserve a safe work environment free from harassment, abuse and discrimination. Yet, we know that workplace violations happen far too often. I’ve seen this all my life in the logging industry. Maine workers face wage theft, misclassification, health and safety violations, sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace, overtime violations and more,” said President Jackson. “LD 1711 seeks to protect and support the safety and security of Maine workers who are brave enough to speak out and report wrongdoing in the workplace. Whether it’s a violation of employment law or human rights law, Maine workers should be able to speak out and demand justice. Unfortunately, the current law is failing them.”
 
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. 
 
“No one should be afraid to go to work or be fearful of losing their job for speaking up in support of themselves or their colleagues,” said Rep. Roeder. “What’s more, by having the right to speak out and call attention to workplace wrongdoing, Maine workers will be able to improve the safety and well-being of everyone in our workforce — whether they work in the arts like me, in logging, in food service or any of Maine’s diverse industries.”
 
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. 
 
“One of the most common types of job exploitation is known as wage theft — when employers do not pay workers the full minimum wage, deny them proper overtime payments, short their hours, steal their tips, and other wage violations. This amounts to employers stealing millions of dollars from Maine workers every year,” said Hugh Baran, National Employment Law Project (NELP). “The right to be paid the full amount that you are owed for your hours worked is a fundamental human right — as is our ability to join with our coworkers and speak out when our rights are violated. The legislature must pass LD 1711. This whistleblower enforcement bill will ensure that workers can rely on the protections of Maine’s employment laws, regardless of employer efforts to impose forced arbitration.”
 
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.
 
“Let’s be clear — it’s the law that companies keep the people who work from them safe from sexual harassment by investigating claims and taking action. And it’s my legal right to work in a safe environment. But my employers decided to violate that law,” said Roxy Petrovich of Woodstock. “So I started to research what I could do to hold them accountable. And that’s when I found out that I couldn’t take legal action, because I’d signed an arbitration clause. I had been forced to waive my legal rights, in the fine print of my employment contract.”
 
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. 
 
“There were times when it would be too busy at work to take a break — impossible to do when a store is understaffed. At times I would actually clock out and work through my break time so I wouldn’t get written up for not taking my break or not finishing an assigned task. I would most commonly work an unpaid break in order to put away refrigerated items: The delivery truck  would show up when I was on break, and I was the only person with the authority to receive the truck. These were some of the most stressful nights to work — working a 9-hour shift and not having the time to eat or stop working,” said Berndt Erickson. “When I first started working at Dollar General, I signed a document that took away my right to pursue legal action if I experienced any discrimination, wage theft or harassment. Instead, if I brought something up, it would have to be through private arbitration — typically in a location and through a format of my employer’s design. The ability to be a whistleblower protects both workers and customers from bad practices many companies keep participating in.”
 
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 specifically seeks to build that access for enforcement for Maine. It creates a process to ensure that all workers, especially those least likely to be supported under the status quo, have a pathway to justice for workplace harassment and discrimination,” said Destie Hohman Sprague, Maine Women’s Lobby. “I worked in the field of sexual violence and sexual harassment for many years, and one thing we know is that survivors need many pathways and options for addressing the harm that they experience. LD 1711 creates more options — ultimately creating more protections for Mainers, and a safer, more equitable Maine.”

LD 1711 faces additional work sessions in committee.
 
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