ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Paid sick leave is no longer on the table in Bernalillo County — but a similar benefit has emerged as a new possibility.
The County Commission on Tuesday deferred a vote on a paid sick leave proposal so the public had time to study a newly introduced substitute version. Chief among the changes is terminology: The ordinance would require businesses with at least two employees to provide “paid time off” instead of “sick leave.” Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, co-sponsor of the original legislation, said the new language aligns with more current business practices and eliminates some of the paperwork headaches associated with tying the leave to specific needs.
The update also limits who can file a lawsuit over an alleged violation — the affected employee and his or her representative. The initial bill’s language permitted anyone to take a business to court.
“I want to say since the introduction of the original language, we have taken the time to meet with many, many people on all sides — all stakeholders in this conversation — and we have taken to heart many of the comments and feedback,” Hart Stebbins said Tuesday before introducing the substitute bill, which the board could vote on when it returns from its summer hiatus in late August.
But it is unlikely the changes will satisfy some of the bill’s critics.
New Mexico Restaurant Association CEO Carol Wight said Tuesday evening that she could not comment on the specific changes because she had not seen the full substitute. But she said her organization believes employment law should come from the state and federal government rather than the county.
Regardless of the changes to the Bernalillo County proposal, “It’s still bad policy,” Wight said.
Commissioner Lonnie Talbert, the board’s lone Republican, said he disagrees with a law requiring employers to provide paid leave but said he appreciated his fellow commissioners’ willingness to give the public more time to review it. He said those with concerns can compile data supporting their objections, which could lead to further amendments.
“We get very emotional about these things, and it’s an emotional topic,” he said. “However, I know that when logic prevails, most of the time we can come up with something good.”
Under the current proposal, employers would have to provide all workers — including part-time and temporary workers — at least one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours per year.
Although Bernalillo County includes Albuquerque, the ordinance would apply only to the county’s unincorporated areas, such as the East Mountains and the South Valley.
There are now about 1,350 commercial business licenses in the unincorporated areas. The law would affect businesses with at least two employees but would exclude businesses in their first year.
The commission’s deferral came after a public hearing featuring about 50 speakers, with about the same number of supporters as detractors.
Many business associations and individual business owners raised objections, with several saying the law’s limited application puts businesses in the county’s unincorporated areas at a disadvantage. New Mexico Roofing Contractors Association Executive Director Michael Rife said that county-based firms could struggle to win jobs when bidding against competitors from within the city or other counties where employers do not have to offer paid leave.
Although Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis introduced a paid sick leave ordinance in December, it has not had a committee hearing.
But many who advocated for paid sick leave called it an essential benefit, with some telling personal stories about how paid time off allowed them to get cancer treatment or help care for severely ill family members.
The AARP and the immigrant rights organization El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos were among those who voiced support.
Eric Griego of New Mexico Working Families said paid sick leave “respects worker, family and community well-being” and said opponents bring the “same tired talking points” previously lodged against indoor smoking bans and minimum wage increases.
“The low-wage, low-benefit strategy we have pursued for decades hasn’t led to prosperity for New Mexicans,” he said.
Ordinance supporter Brian Gillespie used his remarks to challenge the business groups’ arguments against paid sick leave.
“Capitalism likes the low road, and, hey, I’m not saying there isn’t a cost to earned paid leave. There definitely is,” he told the Commission. “But the low road dumps that cost on our community. It’s on our families and our children.”