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Bills would offer paid leave for medical emergencies

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico workers would be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year to attend to medical emergencies – including the birth of children – under two competing bills pending at the state Capitol.

But it’s unclear if either bill will move forward after a House committee deadlocked Monday on a scaled-back proposal – that would involve further study of the issue – and did not vote on the other bill.

In their initial form, both proposals would require all employees to pay into a new fund that would be in charge of managing the leave program and paying out leave benefits.

And both would also likely require a payout from the state – an estimated $36 million in the coming budget year – to hire staff and implement the necessary technical resources.

During Monday’s hearing on the bills, backers said a paid worker leave program would improve health care outcomes in a state with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates.

They also pointed out the United States is one of the few industrialized nations without a national paid family leave program.

“It makes for a happy, healthier and more productive workforce when we institute policies like this,” said Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of one of the two bills.

But representatives from business groups raised concern the law would be cumbersome and could be difficult for businesses to comply with.

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said the bill could impose specific burdens on small businesses and nonprofit groups, which could also face an increase in the state’s $7.50 per hour minimum wage under separate legislation that’s also pending at the state Capitol.

“I get the intent and the heart behind it,” Dow said. “I’m just trying to figure out how a senior center or a homeless shelter … is supposed to implement all of these different initiatives.”

Under federal law, employees already have the right to take up to 12 weeks annually to care for a family member, newborn or attend to their own serious medical conditions. But the federal law does not require employers to pay their workers during the leave period.

Only four states – New York, New Jersey, California and Rhode Island – currently have paid leave programs, with Washington set to become the fifth state in 2020, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under House Bill 213, the bill proposed by Roybal Caballero, most of the state’s roughly 850,000 employees would have to pay at least $2 out of their paychecks every calendar quarter – or at least $8 per year into the fund.

Backers said those mandatory deductions would function similarly to health insurance premiums.

“It’s time to take an action and to bring the state of New Mexico into the 21st century and protect our families by providing them with financial resources when they need them the most,” said Pamelya Herndon, the former executive director of the Southwest Women’s Law Center.

Meanwhile, the other paid family leave bill, House Bill 264, is sponsored by first-term Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos.

During a Monday meeting of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, Chandler proposed a rewrite of her bill. It would have merely appropriated $1 million in the coming year so the issue could be more closely studied.

She said the Department of Workforce Solutions, the agency that would ultimately run the program, was in favor of the approach.

But a motion to advance the scaled-back bill stalled on a 5-5 vote, with Roybal Caballero joining the committee’s four Republican members in casting “no” votes.

A vote on Roybal Caballero’s bill was not immediately taken, leaving the fate of both bills in limbo.

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