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Committee gives favorable recommendation to ag worker bill

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(The Center Square) – A bill proposing new rights for Maine’s agriculture workers is moving out of a legislative committee with a favorable recommendation.

On a 7-3 vote, the Committee on Labor and Housing gave Legislative Document 398 an “ought to pass” recommendation.

The bill, if passed into law, would give employee status to all agriculture workers. The provision means all laborers – including those working on visas – would be privy to the state’s minimum wage laws and other protections.

The committee voted favorably on LD 398 after inserting several amendments that will go to both chambers of the General Assembly for consideration.

The most recent amendments, introduced Thursday, include an extended timeline that proposes the act take effect Jan. 1, 2024, rather than July 1.

LD 398, as amended, does not include any overtime provisions, meaning agriculture workers working more than 40 hours a week would not necessarily receive time-and-a-half beyond the threshold.

The amendments also do not allow unionization but give workers the right to talk amongst themselves and seek third-party expertise about their rights without retribution from employers.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, is the presenter of LD 398. At the meeting, she said the amendments were the result of a series of compromises and the net result of in-depth conversations between many parties.

“We did hold multiple, multiple meetings,” Talbot Ross said. “There’s some really good things that have come out of these conversations. We put value in the debate. I think one of the good things that’s come out of this is we’re talking.’’

While there was a desire to add additional components to the bill, including unionization, Talbot Ross said, “This is the best, many of us believe, we can do now.”

Rep. Amy Roeder, D-Bangor, said she believes LD 398 would be a positive for Maine’s overall labor force and economy if the bill does move forward.

“This is an issue I’m committed to continuing to work on,” said Roeder, who co-chairs the committee. “When people come, willing to work, that’s when good things happen in Maine. I think there is still work for us to do for the farm workers – and the farmers, quite frankly – in Maine.”

Rep. Marc Malon, D-Biddeford, offered similar comments as the “ought to pass” vote on the amended bill was presented.

“I think this is an important bill and an important step forward,” Malon said. “These are workers that, too often, have been forgotten.”

But Rep. Dick Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, among the dissenters, gave a different assessment of LD 398 and its intent.

“Some of the unintended consequences, I believe, is we’ll see fewer crops grown in the state of Maine,” Bradstreet said. “That doesn’t bode well, I think, for Maine and the industry.”

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