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Editorial: ABQ Council should revive healthy sick-leave proposal

Ensuring sick-leave benefits are available for private-sector Albuquerque workers isn’t going away – despite a City Council committee killing it for the time being last week.

And it shouldn’t, not only because voters rejected an earlier, extremely onerous version of said ordinance by just 718 votes around a year ago, but because sick leave is important.

The message was, and still is: Many city residents believe the right thing for businesses to do is provide some sick-leave benefit. How such a requirement would affect business is a big concern, especially among small-business owners, so it was admirable Council President Ken Sanchez and Councilor Don Harris sought to bring opposing sides together and work out a compromise. Much of their proposal, for businesses with 50 or more employees, were reasonable. They include:

• Accruing one hour of paid sick leave for each 40 hours worked, up to a maximum 40 sick leave hours a calendar year.

• Carrying up to 40 hours of unused sick leave to the next calendar year.

• Using sick leave for medical care for the employee, spouse or family, or if the employee is a victim of family violence.

• Qualifying to use sick leave after working 720 hours.

• Covering employees who work an average of at least 20 hours a week; temporary employees would not qualify.

• Exempting employers with a sick leave/paid-time-off program that meets or exceeds the ordinance.

Sanchez said the proposed ordinance, introduced almost a year ago and set to kick in Jan. 1, was delayed while councilors await a University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research report on the proposal. He had asked for a comprehensive report for the business community and sick-leave advocates to look at together. That remains a good idea – especially because taxpayers have already paid for it.

Meanwhile, representatives of Equality New Mexico, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and El Centro de Igualdad, who have advocated for a sick-leave ordinance, told committee members they favored deferral and a bill with additional items. For them, this version does not go far enough. And that Harris sent Councilor Pat Davis to the Finance and Government Committee meeting in his stead, only to have Davis help kill his proposal, raises questions.

It is essential any new proposal not revert to the overbroad promises of the 2017 Healthy Workforce Ordinance, which in practice would have delivered pink slips and stifled job growth. And unlike the consensus Sanchez and Harris have built, and the public vetting process they have respected, the 2017 version did not go through any legislative process; it made it to the ballot via a petition drive.

That version would have forced employers, from small mom-and-pops to giant corporations, to offer sick leave to every employee who worked seven days in a year — full time, part time, temporary or seasonal. And to pay for an employee’s medical appointment if they wanted a doctor’s note. And to prove they were not retaliating for use of sick time if they disciplined or fired an employee within 90 days of him/her calling in sick. And it barred the council from making any substantive changes, ever.

The concept of not making employees choose between working sick, caring for a family member or sending a sick child to school and losing needed income is easy to understand. So is the concept of business owners needing to be able to meet their bottom line. And while coming up with a workable solution is not easy, Sanchez and Harris made a solid effort and involved stakeholders. It is essential they continue that collaboration to find a solution.

Because things haven’t changed since voters rejected the 2017 version – or the first City Council attempt at a sick leave ordinance in 2015. Employees and their families still get sick, and employers still have to worry about the cost of doing business.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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