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Editorial: Foam ban, sick leave redux not ready for prime time

If at first you don’t succeed, try again – in a different jurisdiction. Just weeks after Albuquerque city councilors dumped a controversial plan to ban foam carry-out food containers, Bernalillo County has pulled it out of the trash.

A recap on the city’s plastics ban: Albuquerque councilors originally floated the foam container ban as part of a larger ordinance that also restricted single-use plastic bags and plastic straws. Restaurateurs fought back, arguing it presented too heavy a financial burden too quickly. City councilors listened, backed off the carry-out foam and straw portions and passed restrictions on single-use plastic bags that exempt restaurants.

It was a compromise that demonstrated an admirable flexibility. City councilors were clear they wanted to curb plastic use, but by slowing down the train, they showed a real respect for small business owners’ concerns.

Foam and plastics ban skips compromise

Unfortunately, Bernalillo County commissioners missed that lesson on listening and compromising. The county’s proposal would eliminate both single-use plastic bags and single-use foam to-go containers at the point of sale in the unincorporated portions of the county. Business owners would be allowed to charge customers up to a nickle every time they give out a recyclable container or paper bag – but that might not even let them break even on the change. (The city’s early version allowed businesses to charge up to a dime; an economic impact analysis found the alternative containers would cost between 5-12 cents more per unit.)

Not many would dispute plastic waste is a scourge on the environment and responsible steps to curb it can and should be taken. But as happened in Albuquerque, Bernalillo County’s businesses – around 500 restaurants would be affected – deserve a voice in the process.

Sick-leave plan ignores business concerns

But wait, there’s more. The city and the county are considering coordinated proposals requiring nearly all businesses with at least two employees to offer paid sick leave, including part-time and seasonal workers. They would accrue at least 1 hour for every 30 hours worked. The leave could be used for the employee or a family member, up to and including someone they have a close personal tie to.

And while sick leave is an important benefit the Journal has editorialized in favor of – most recently in December – these proposals are simply re-treads of the city’s onerous Healthy Workforce Ordinance, which voters rejected, albeit by a small margin, in 2017.

Expecting small family businesses to keep records on sick leave for their handful of employees, larger companies to carry sick leave on the books for holiday hires who only work a few weeks out of the year, and municipalities for their summer hires simply doesn’t pass a basic cost-benefit analysis. Work full-time for two weeks wrapping gifts and earn just over two hours of sick time. Work two months over a summer as a lifeguard and bank around a day of sick leave. Work part-time and it’s even less.

And allowing sick leave to be taken to tend to a friend of a friend quite simply leaves business owners in a lurch.

All constituents deserve to have a say

There’s a common-sense version of this bill to be had – City Council President Ken Sanchez and Councilor Don Harris proposed reasonable requirements last year for businesses with 50-plus employees that included covering those who work an average of at least 20 hours a week (no temps); qualifying to use sick leave after working 720 hours; using sick leave for medical care for the employee, spouse or family, or if the employee is a victim of family violence; and exempting employers with a sick leave/paid-time-off program that meets or exceeds the plan.

As with the plastics ban, Bernalillo County commissioners and Albuquerque city councilors need to be sensitive to concerns raised by all of their constituents.

Running a business – especially a small business – is hard, but New Mexicans do it out of personal passion, a desire to create wealth and jobs, the hope of building a legacy for their children. Elected officials do have a responsibility – to our community and to workers – to try to ensure a safe and healthy environment. But they also have a responsibility to foster an economy where businesses can thrive without being overburdened by onerous regulation.

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.