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New sick leave bill likened to failed one

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Just weeks after one Albuquerque sick leave ordinance quietly failed, another one has arrived.

The city’s latest paid sick leave proposal would cover employees at businesses of all sizes, extend to those who work part time or seasonally and permit lawsuits against employers alleged to have violated the law.

It would also allow absences to care for immediate family members as well as any other individual with whom the employee or spouse has “the equivalent of a family relationship.”

City Councilor Pat Davis

City Councilor Pat Davis

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis on Monday filed the legislation, written in conjunction with several advocacy groups. He calls it a compromise bill that balances employee and employer needs.

But critics are already lining up, with some business groups saying it closely resembles a previous proposal they considered too onerous – one voters narrowly defeated last year.

That ordinance, called Healthy Workforce, made it to the ballot after advocacy organizations gathered about 14,000 signatures. About 91,000 votes were cast in the Oct. 3, 2017, election, and the proposed ordinance lost by about 700 votes.

That outcome prompted Councilors Ken Sanchez, a Democrat, and Don Harris, a Republican, to introduce a less comprehensive sick leave ordinance they considered more business-friendly. But their bill died last month when it failed to advance out of a council committee.

Davis said he sees his newly introduced bill as a way “to reset that conversation.”

His legislation would guarantee workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours of sick leave per year.

It would not require employers to change their existing policies if they complied with the requirements, nor would it preclude companies from offering more generous benefits.

Employees could use leave for their own illness or medical care; to care for family members or anyone with whom they or a spouse/partner consider the “equivalent of a family relationship”; or to cover absences related to domestic violence.

Unlike the past two proposals, Davis’ bill would not exempt small businesses or lower the requirements for them.

The Sanchez-Harris bill would have applied only to businesses with at least 50 employees. Healthy Workforce, meanwhile, had different provisions for businesses with fewer than 40 employees.

Restricting a mandate to those with 50-plus employees would affect only 240 businesses – 1.8 percent of all businesses in Albuquerque, according to a new city-commissioned study from the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research.

The same study found that 100,596 Albuquerque workers do not have access to paid sick leave, a figure Davis cited in his bill. That number includes 64 percent of those in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes food services, and 44 percent of those who work in retail.

Organizations supporting Davis’ bill – including the Center for Civic Policy, the Center on Law and Poverty and New Mexico Voices for Children – issued a joint statement, saying workers without paid sick leave must “make the tough decision between taking care of themselves if they get sick, or losing a day’s paycheck.”

“We have the opportunity to do right by all of our city’s small businesses and working families,” their statement said.

However, both the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Restaurant Association – part of a collective that campaigned against the Healthy Workforce ordinance – said this week that they would oppose Davis’ bill.

“It’s just too similar to that bill,” chamber Vice Chairman Sherman McCorkle said. “We have not yet dissected it and taken it to the (chamber) board, but it would appear very difficult to repair by amendment.”

The bills have similarly broad definitions of “family,” and both would extend paid sick leave benefits to any worker – even those who work seasonally, part time or on a temporary basis – as long as they log 56 total hours in a year.

The Sanchez-Harris bill would have allowed employees to use the leave only to care for themselves, their children or spouse, and it would have applied only to employees who worked an average of at least 20 hours a week.

Davis said his bill would give employers more latitude in structuring their policies than Healthy Workforce; one notable distinction is that they can require documentation for any sick leave absence. The previous bill would have allowed businesses to demand documentation only when a worker took three consecutive days.

Although both would prohibit retaliation against employees who take leave, Healthy Workforce presumed an employer had violated the ordinance if it had taken “any adverse action” against a worker within 90 days after the employee took sick leave or reported an alleged violation. Davis’ bill does not include that language.

However, Carol Wight, CEO of the restaurant association, said she is concerned partly because Davis’ bill would allow lawsuits against alleged ordinance violators even before a complaint had gone through the city’s administrative process. The Sanchez-Harris bill would have established an administrative hearing process, after which any aggrieved party could have appealed in court.

“It almost assumes that employers are trying to cheat people, and really, employers are just trying to do their best,” she said.

But some business owners support mandating sick leave.

Ken Carson, the owner of Nexus Brewery, helped work on the bill as a member of the social advocacy nonprofit OLÉ.

Carson said he already offers paid leave for all his employees – something his applicants are often surprised to learn, especially servers who work part time.

Having left banking to start his restaurant and brewery, Carson said he doesn’t understand why sick leave should be the standard in one industry but not in another – especially one in which compensation tends to be lower.

“When you’re on a budget, when your income is low, you’re the least able to be able to afford missing a day of work, whereas our bankers – and I’m sure the lobbyists for the Chamber of Commerce and all the people who are against it – all have leave,” he said. “Why do they get leave and others in our community don’t?”