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Paid sick leave back on the front burner

Loren Burton is a server at Nexus Brewery, which is among the restaurants in Albuquerque that offers paid leave to its employees. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

When Loren Burton needed surgery to remove her impacted wisdom teeth, she had to lobby to get the necessary time off from her job at an Albuquerque hotel.

Burton needed to meet with her manager, provide multiple doctors’ notes and pick up extra hours after the fact to compensate.

She was ultimately granted some leave – a single day without pay.

“I had to come in the next day (after surgery),” she recalls. “Luckily I was a breakfast attendant, so it was a short shift. It was four hours. But my cheeks were pretty big at that time, and I had to get dropped off that day because I had the pain pills I had to take, so (I was) dropped off and picked up that day.”

Burton, 22, is now among the minority of hospitality workers in Albuquerque who do have paid time off. She took a server job nearly two years ago at Nexus Brewery & Restaurant.

Owner Ken Carson, who has advocated for a paid sick leave ordinance, gives Nexus employees – even part-timers – paid leave. It’s a benefit Burton said she never had in four previous jobs that included two hotels, a restaurant and an entertainment center.

In fact, more than a third of Albuquerque’s private-sector employees, or about 100,600 people, do not get paid sick leave, according to a new report.

The City Council-commissioned study found that the rate of coverage in Albuquerque is lower than in the country as a whole – 64 percent compared to 71 percent – and that the benefit is particularly rare among those in Burton’s industry and among low-income workers.

While 36 percent of the city’s overall private sector workforce has no paid leave, the rate is 64 percent in leisure and hospitality, which has also been the city’s fastest growing employment sector.

The new report comes amid another effort to mandate paid sick leave in Albuquerque, with City Councilor Pat Davis even citing its data in a bill that would require employers of all sizes to provide the benefit.

The rate of those without coverage is also higher than the city average in retail, where 44 percent of workers have no paid leave.

Disparities exist not just across sectors but across incomes.

Ninety percent of those with household incomes under $15,000 lack access to paid leave, according to the report. That’s compared to about one-third of those with incomes between $35,000 and $74,999 and even fewer at higher incomes.

Most business owners recognize their employees’ need to recover from illness or care for loved ones, according to the new report from the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Those who do not provide paid sick leave often say offering workers unpaid time off is “an effective strategy,” according to the report.

“The fundamental problem is that most employees without PSL can neither afford leave without pay nor to pay others to care for loved ones when they are ill,” the report said.

It also said Albuquerque workers without paid leave estimate they showed up to work sick 3.5 times last year, the report said – 1.8 times when they could potentially be spreading illness.

“Nearly half of employees of leisure and hospitality industries (45 percent) have gone to work sick with the risk of spreading illness in the past year, on average 2.4 times per year. This includes persons working in food services,” the report said.

Burton said she had in past jobs gone in when ill, fearing she had no choice if she wanted to keep her job in a high-turnover industry.

“The threat held over you is there’s hundreds of applications behind me, so if you’re going to not perform, not be reliable, then (the manager) can just let you go like that,” she said.

Davis’ legislation, introduced in December, would encompass even part-time and seasonal workers and allow absences related to the employee’s health and for the worker to care for others, including family or those with whom there is “the equivalent of a family relationship.”

Davis’ bill has yet to go before a council committee, and he said he is waiting to push forward until seeing the outcome of “paid family and medical leave” legislation at the state level that would provide coverage for more serious or prolonged illnesses.

He said he has also begun discussions about a possible replacement that would incorporate more business-friendly components – for example providing a more gradual implementation of the requirements.

Davis’ legislation follows multiple failed bids to implement a paid sick leave requirement in the city.

Among the more recent was a bipartisan bill from Councilor Don Harris and Councilor Ken Sanchez that would have applied only to businesses with at least 50 employees. It would have allowed employees who work at least 20 hours a week the leave just to care for themselves, a child or spouse. The legislation died when it failed to advance out of committee.

The Harris-Sanchez bill came after voters narrowly struck down a different, broader ordinance during a 2017 special election. That proposal, supported by community advocacy organizations, lost by about 700 votes out of 91,000 cast.

Last year, the City Council commissioned BBER to “conduct a comprehensive analysis” of the impacts of a city ordinance requiring paid sick leave, paying the organization $73,450.

Councilors received the final version in late January, though a draft had already been circulating.

Jeffrey Mitchell, BBER’s director and the report’s author, said the charge was not to say whether a new law would be a good or bad idea but to provide the Council with information about the impact of such legislation locally.

The research found that limiting a sick leave mandate to companies with at least 50 employees would only extend the benefit to 32,254 workers of the 100,000 who presently do not have it. Most companies that size already provide leave.

But applying a mandate to companies with at least 20 employees would capture almost double the workers – 62,934. Setting the threshold at 10 employees-or-more companies would reach 82,740 total workers.

The report also attempted to quantify how much it would cost businesses without sick leave to add it, calculating the expense of offering each worker five paid sick days per year and the cost of administering such a program. It cost between $716 to $993 per employee per year depending on the size of the business.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, BBER’s research found the overwhelming majority of workers in Albuquerque (83 percent) support a city sick leave mandate, while most employers (57 percent) oppose it.

Many New Mexico business groups have traditionally fought such legislation, arguing it will raise costs, hurt smaller and local employers and possibly make the state a less attractive place for companies to locate.

Advocates, meanwhile, say it could limit the spread of illness and its severity, reduce employee turnover and potentially benefit the economy by keeping good workers in the area.

Mitchell – who examined similar laws enacted in other communities around the country as part of this project – said little nonpartisan research exists on the impact of such policies on business.

“The majority of municipalities or states that have implemented this have done so relatively recently, within the last 10-12 years, so you don’t necessarily have a whole lot of history (and) enough time for serious researchers to have collected information that would inform a good analysis,” Mitchell said in an interview. “Instead what you tend to have are interest groups who will cherry pick.”

His report said the research that is available tends to focus on public health “with a preponderance of evidence that policies effectively encourage workers to avoid work when ill, thus reducing the spread of illness. This research also suggests that lower-income families benefit in particular.”

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