Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Business groups battling Bernalillo County’s paid leave proposal are pushing for significant changes to the bill ahead of Tuesday’s vote, asking that the law exempt smaller employers and require an administrative review before cases wind up in court.
NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, sent county commissioners a 10-point letter outlining suggested edits, and several other industry groups are advocating for similar changes.
The letter follows months of debate and discussion on the legislation that Commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley introduced in May.
Although the proposed law would affect only businesses in the unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County, such as the East Mountains and the South Valley, it has stirred strong opposition from many business advocacy organizations.
NAIOP President Lynne Andersen said that’s partly because the county may be setting a precedent: She suspects any policy it adopts might be replicated in other jurisdictions, such as Albuquerque.
“I think it’s very likely that this or a very similar bill will be before the city, so we wanted to get it right at this point,” she said.
Bernalillo County’s proposal would require all businesses with at least two employees to offer one hour of paid time off to all employees for every 32 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours a year. It would exempt companies in their first year.
Although originally drafted as a paid sick leave bill, a June amendment changed it to a general paid time off proposal that Hart Stebbins said better aligns with modern workplace benefit tracking and was in response to comments from the business community.
The commission chairwoman said Thursday that she remains open to additional feedback and called some of the NAIOP letter’s points “well-founded.”
“I think we are very sincere in our statements that we continue to accept input into this ordinance from all parties, all interested stakeholders,” Hart Stebbins said. “This is valuable; it is great to have something in writing that gives specific concerns and suggestions.”
Andersen’s letter asks the commission to establish a mandatory administrative process so that alleged offenses are addressed at the county level before a lawsuit can be filed.
It requests limiting the law’s application to bigger businesses – calling it more “logical” to restrict such a mandate to companies with at least 50 employees – and urges coverage restrictions so employers would not have to provide paid leave to part-time, temporary or seasonal workers.
The letter outlines several other objections, saying the bill’s current language would not permit an employer to deny a request for time off – something it suggests carried over from the bill’s original language as a sick leave proposal.
“Under this ordinance, an employee could use paid leave to go golfing on a day where they are critical in the creation of a product for a customer,” the coalition writes of the bill’s current language.
But Hart Stebbins disputes that reading. She says employers would be empowered to set the process for requesting leave, although they would be prohibited from requiring advance notice for leave related to illness or emergencies.
Any commissioner can propose amendments before Tuesday’s vote. Hart Stebbins said that she has not drafted any yet but that she will further explore a possible administrative hearing process and look into some of the letter’s specific concerns.
However, she said she does not intend to increase the size of businesses for which the law would apply, saying that the proposed 50-worker threshold “would exempt most Bernalillo County businesses.”
Although many business associations have fought the bill since it was initially introduced as a paid sick leave proposal, many other organizations have voiced support.
At the June public hearing on the bill, about 50 people made public comments – roughly half speaking in favor and half against.
Groups backing the bill include the AARP, Equality New Mexico and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
Stephanie Welch, supervising attorney for workers’ rights for the Center on Law and Poverty, disagrees with many of the NAIOP requests, saying that workers who file complaints should be able to file a lawsuit without waiting for a county administrative process that may be “overburdened.” Putting the mandate only on companies with at least 50 workers would render it almost meaningless, she said, because most area businesses have fewer than 50 employees.
“Everyone can be healthier and recover more quickly and reduce the spread of disease if people, when they get sick, can stay home,” she said.
The Bernalillo County Commission is scheduled to vote on the paid leave proposal Tuesday and will start the meeting at 4 p.m., an hour earlier than usual.