Caregivers must be paid minimum wage

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s minimum wage will not only gradually ramp up to $12 an hour by 2023, but it will also apply for the first time to caregivers, housekeepers and other employees who work in private homes.

That’s because a bill passed by the Legislature during this year’s 60-day legislative session and signed into law last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will remove a long-standing exemption for such domestic workers from the state’s wage laws.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, who co-sponsored the bill during this year’s session, said many domestic workers have historically been paid less than minimum wage.

She also said the legislation came about after a task force was created in 2017 to study the role of caregivers, who help take care of elderly individuals and those with developmental disabilities.

“If these caregivers aren’t doing this work, many of these people (they care for) would probably be in institutions,” Stefanics said.

There are roughly 65,000 caregivers across New Mexico, but the number of workers affected by the new law will probably be even higher, because that figure does not include other types of domestic workers.

The legislation, Senate Bill 85, largely flew under the radar during this year’s session, as lawmakers also passed high-profile bills dealing with public schools, ethics, renewable energy and gun sales.

They also passed compromise legislation to raise the minimum wage for all workers for the first time since 2009. Under that bill, New Mexico’s minimum wage will jump from $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour in January 2020. It will then rise again in each of the following three years until reaching $12 an hour in 2023.

Because domestic workers will now be subject to the state’s wage laws, their pay rates will also be affected by the minimum wage increase.

But the new law will not affect domestic workers who work as private contractors, because contractors are not subject to certain federal and state wage laws.

Stephanie Welch, a supervising attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said New Mexico’s exclusion of domestic workers from state wage laws dates back decades. Although the federal government updated its laws to remove a similar exemption several years ago, New Mexico had left its exemption on the books.

“This is a discriminatory exclusion that primarily affects low-income workers and women of color,” Welch said Tuesday.

Some domestic workers say they have not always been fully paid for the hours they work by the companies that employ them.

“It is invisible work, fraught with exploitation such as wage theft, and historically our work has not been given the value it deserves,” said Alicia Saenz, a member of the Albuquerque-based El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigrant advocacy group, after Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law last week.

In addition to requiring that domestic workers be paid at least the state minimum wage, the new law will also give covered employees more rights when it comes to disputes with their employers over pay levels or other issues.

However, the state Department of Workforce Solutions already has a significant backlog of wage claims, and adding more cases could require more funding for the agency, according to a fiscal analysis of this year’s bill.

In addition, Stefanics said some businesses have expressed concern about escalating costs due to the newly enacted law.

There is another existing state wage exemption for agricultural and livestock workers that will not be affected by the new law, which is set to take effect June 14.

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