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Doing business in Bernalillo County will now mean meeting a new standard after the County Commission decided to require employers in the unincorporated areas of the county to offer their workers paid leave.
The commission passed the Employee Wellness Act on Tuesday. The 3-2 vote came after hours of public discussion and board debate that reflected the contentious nature of the measure.
“I haven’t slept in two weeks; this isn’t an easy thing for me to do,” Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada said, noting there are over 300 small businesses in his district but that he also has to represent the workforce, including people who “do not have a voice.”
Quezada joined the legislation’s sponsors, Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley, in voting for it.
Charlene Pyskoty and Lonnie Talbert voted against it.
“I support the idea of paid time off and paid sick leave; however, I had to stand up for my district and vote no on this particular ordinance,” Pyskoty said, adding that she hopes to continue to help refining the ordinance in the future.
The act requires businesses with at least two employees to provide workers with at least one hour of paid time off for every 32 hours worked. The county will phase in the mandate — one of several changes made to the bill Tuesday.
The law does not entitle workers to accrue more than 24 hours of leave during the first year of implementation, 40 hours in the second year and 56 hours in the third year and beyond, though the policy does not prevent companies from offering more generous benefits.
The law goes into effect July 1, 2020, and only applies to businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county, including the East Mountains and South Valley.
Pyskoty, who represents the East Mountains, tried to amend the ordinance to allow smaller businesses to provide less leave to their workers. She said she had to fight for the tiniest enterprises in her area.
But the amendment failed in dramatic fashion, as Quezada waited several seconds to cast the deciding no vote to cheers from many in the crowd.
Hart Stebbins and O’Malley also helped strike it down.
“Employees have needs no matter what size employer they work for, and I think we need to be consistent,” Hart Stebbins said.
Hart Stebbins and O’Malley originally introduced the legislation in May as a paid “sick leave” ordinance. The commission amended it in June to a less specific paid “time off” mandate, saying that was more compatible with modern workplace benefits packages.
But the notion of any paid leave mandate stirred intense debate in the community. Business advocacy groups argued it was costly, confusing and would disproportionately affect small businesses. Some also said it made suing companies over alleged offenses too easy.
But several other groups — including the AARP, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and immigrant rights organizations — have backed it. Supporters say giving workers paid leave to recover from illness or care for ailing family members is a basic human right and a matter of public health. Advocates also said requiring paid leave would ensure the lowest-paid workers — who research shows are least likely to have such a benefit — do not have to choose between staying home sick and paying their bills.
While supporters celebrated Tuesday’s decision inside and outside the commission chambers, they did not consider it a total victory.
Eric Griego, state director for New Mexico Working Families, called the phased-in approach a “huge compromise.”
However, he said he was pleased the final version did not exempt smaller businesses.
“Our goal was always to cover everybody,” he said.
Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, said the organization opposes a county-level paid leave mandate, saying such policy should be set at the state or federal level.
But Black commended the commission for addressing some of the business community’s concerns, including amendments approved Tuesday night that limit the damages employers would pay for an offense and requires a county administrative process before any lawsuit can be filed.
A county-level mandate “makes it really hard for businesses to comply if they have multiple locations,” he said. “With that said, I think (the commissioners) did move on some key issues that were important for the business community, and we hope to continue to work with the county to make sure we can educate employers on how to comply with this ordinance going forward.”
Hart Stebbins said after the meeting that the new ordinance did not leave either side completely happy.
“I think we all worked really hard to find a balance between the interests of employees and employers, because we recognize this is important to both,” she said.