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Paid sick leave – vital for workers or a job killer?

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

If you’ve tuned in to a local radio station, logged on to Facebook, read letters to the editor in the Journal or attended a mayoral forum in recent weeks, then you’ve seen or heard the clashes between those pushing for the Healthy Workforce Ordinance and those opposed to it.

Proponents argue that requiring Albuquerque businesses to provide paid sick leave to all employees – including full-time, part-time and temporary workers – is vital for Albuquerque’s working families and that “high-paid business lobbyists are scaring voters with lies.”

Opponents counter that the measure is far broader than most paid sick leave ordinances and that it would kill jobs and hurt small businesses. They also contend that it was drafted by trial lawyers and union lawyers in New York City who have no interest in Albuquerque.

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The debate will only intensify in the coming days as voters begin casting their ballots on the issue. Election Day is Oct. 3, although early voting begins Wednesday. Also on the ballot are the mayoral and City Council races, as well as several bond questions.

For the past 16 months, Albuquerque has been ground zero in what has become a nationwide push to require businesses to provide paid sick time to every employee. Earlier this summer, Arizona joined six other states – including California, Oregon and Washington – in requiring paid sick leave. More than two dozen cities have enacted sick leave legislation, although Albuquerque would be the first in New Mexico to do so if the measure passes. Voters in Denver rejected mandatory paid sick leave in 2011.

Locally, the push for paid sick leave began in May 2016 when a coalition of left-leaning groups – including OLÉ New Mexico, the SouthWest Organizing Project and El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos – began gathering signatures to get the proposed ordinance on the ballot. They succeeded, collecting 24,000, roughly 10,000 more than required.

Several court battles have ensued.

The tug of war also has played out before the Bernalillo County Commission – which refused to place the measure on last year’s general election ballot – and the Albuquerque City Council, which has spent hours considering how the sick leave question should be presented to voters.

Actively opposing the measure is the Albuquerque Coalition for a Healthy Economy, a group of about 31 members that include the New Mexico Restaurant Association; the Rio Grande Foundation; NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association; the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce; and the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce.

‘Mountains of red tape’

“The ‘Sick Ordinance’ is bad for Albuquerque,” Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, told the Journal on Friday. “Mountains of red tape and onerous regulations will drive business out and keep new business out of our city. Workers lose. Customers lose. The only winners are special interests.”

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Among the concerns raised by opponents is that employees have the right to take sick leave if any member of their family or anyone they consider to be like family is sick; that there is a rebuttable presumption that any adverse action against an employee taken within 90 days of the employee being out sick is retaliation; and, they say, many companies would have to change their policies regarding paid time off.

Robert Vick, owner of Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen, told the City Council in July that he has halted plans to expand his restaurant because of the proposed ordinance. He said the proposed ordinance would cost businesses a lot of money and open them up to litigation.

“It’s totally one-sided, and I think it’s going to hurt us,” he told councilors.

Lynne Anderson, president of NAIOP, told councilors at that same meeting that the business community isn’t against paid sick leave.

“Most of my members pay paid sick leave,” she said. “But this one, the way this is written, it would be so detrimental. … I already have members telling me they’re going to have to move out of the city. It will affect gross receipts tax. It will affect the economy.”

NAIOP and several others filed a lawsuit earlier this year challenging the sick leave proposal. The suit was dismissed last month, but on Friday, Pat Rogers, their attorney, filed notice that they plan to appeal the decision to the state Court of Appeals.

The state Supreme Court earlier this month rejected an emergency petition to keep the ordinance off the ballot, but justices left the door open for Rogers to appeal the ruling through the regular channels.

Business proponent

Not all members of the business community are opposed to the proposed law.

Ken Carson, owner of Nexus Brewery, has been speaking in favor of it and even has appeared in a radio ad in which he says that employees who go to work sick can make customers sick.

“I support the earned sick days question because I know it’s good for my business,” he has told city councilors.

Carson said he already provides paid sick leave for his employees.

“I feel like it’s good for our customers, and I feel like it’s good for our hard-working employees,” he said.

Edgar Salinas, a 33-year-old father of three who works for an Albuquerque company that builds and installs custom doors, will be watching the outcome of the sick leave vote closely. Salinas, who has an 8-year-old son with autism, doesn’t have paid sick leave.

And although his wife is a stay-at-home mom, he said, there are times when he has to take one of his kids to the doctor.

“A lot of people, not just me, live on a tight budget,” he told the Journal. “You can imagine how hard it is for someone who lives paycheck to paycheck to be short one day or two (of pay). It’s really hard.”

Salinas said he’s not an American citizen yet, so he can’t vote, “but if I could, I definitely would” vote for it.

“Having three kids to support … I have to work. I have to work hard every day. … If we ever get to have paid sick leave, it would be a lot of help for families that are in the position I am. Every dollar counts.”

Debate on radio

Both sides have attorneys who have been battling it out at every turn. While opponents have retained Rogers to spearhead their fight, proponents have Elizabeth Wagoner and Tim Davis with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. Their most recent battle played out last week with a debate on KKOB radio.

“When we ensure that people can go to the doctor, when we ensure people don’t have to go to work sick, when we ensure that parents don’t have to send sick kids to school, we prevent the spread of illness, and we make everyone safer, healthier and stronger,” Wagoner argued.

Rogers countered with the argument that the devil is in the details.

“The details of this make it the most onerous, expensive and extreme sick leave provision in America,” he said. Rogers told the Journal that proponents of the ordinance are trying to portray those fighting it as heartless people who want to work employees to death. That’s simply not the case, he said, adding that workers will be the ones who suffer when they can’t find jobs because the provisions in the ordinance drive businesses away. “We’re not an island unto ourselves,” he said. “We’re in competition with large, booming cities, such as Denver, which rejected a weak sister version of this. (For) any employer looking to expand here, this is a negative.”

Wagoner said the ordinance was modeled after other paid sick time ordinances that have been enacted across the county and those ordinances haven’t caused the economic woes that opponents say will result here.

Advertising battle

In their advertising, both sides are setting this up as a life-and-death issue.

Proponents say in one commercial that the law would give survivors of domestic violence paid time off to deal with leaving abusive homes.

“This can literally save lives,” a woman says.

Opponents charge in their own commercial that the ordinance would kill jobs: “We ask Albuquerque voters to stand with small businesses that are already struggling.”

Healthy Workforce ABQ and the affiliated entities pushing for the ordinance appear to be well-positioned for a media blitz in the final three weeks before Election Day, having amassed $175,000 in their war chest. In recent weeks, the Center for Civic Policy, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit group that advocates for progressive causes, has contributed $150,000, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has kicked in another $25,000 in an effort to get the measure approved.

Opponents have raised a little more than $124,000 to date and had $24,000 left in the bank as of Friday. The Realtors Association of New Mexico has donated $50,000, the New Mexico Restaurant Association has pitched in more than $27,000 and Real Estate PAC contributed another $20,000 in its quest to defeat the proposed ordinance.

The mayoral candidates have been split in their positions on the sick leave bill, with Republicans Dan Lewis, Wayne Johnson and Ricardo Chaves and independent Michelle Garcia Holmes opposed.

“This will actually be a devastating thing to our city,” Garcia Holmes said at a forum last week.

Democrats Tim Keller and Brian Colón said they would vote for it, although they have concerns about some of the details. Democrat Gus Pedrotty supported it. Independent Susan Wheeler-Deichsel has gone back and forth on it.

“Sick leave brings up everybody,” Pedrotty said at that same forum. “Sick leave is important. Sick leave helps all of us.”


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