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Business groups bristle at proposals

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Three proposed ordinances aimed at helping Albuquerque workers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic have drawn the ire of local business groups, whose leaders say the rules would hurt businesses just as they’re beginning to recover.

Albuquerque City Councilors Isaac Benton and Lan Sena introduced the three ordinances at a meeting Monday.

One proposal would require employers to provide workers with up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for a variety of ailments, including the novel coronavirus.

Another would require certain essential businesses to pay some employees up to $75 extra per shift in “emergency premium” pay.

A third would require some employers to provide personal protective equipment, such as masks, for their employees.

Terri Cole

The proposals would apply to businesses within Albuquerque’s city limits.

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said the measures were “a surprise and a huge disappointment.”

Cole and Lynne Andersen, president of NAIOP New Mexico, said they fear the bills will be pushed through without enough discussion and, if approved, would place an excessive burden on businesses that have already been hammered by shutdowns related to the pandemic.

Lynne Andersen

“The entire action lacks sensitivity to business concerns,” Cole said. “It lacks a respect for transparency and public process.”

By contrast, Andrea Serrano, executive director of workers rights nonprofit OLÉ, said the proposed rules are designed to create a framework that supports vulnerable Albuquerque workers during a particularly tenuous period.

“Their safety has to be at the forefront as we talk about reopening as an economy,” Serrano said.

Serrano wouldn’t say whether OLÉ had a role in crafting the ordinances, but said the nonprofit supports all three.

Benton did not respond to requests for comment and Sena was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon.

Andrea Serrano

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s office didn’t take a stance on the bills Thursday.

“We will review these pieces of legislation from the City Council,” spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn wrote in an email. “Our focus is on the health of our city, the recovery of our economy and public safety. Policies this wide-reaching need full public vetting with stakeholders from all walks of life.”

Premium pay

The Public Health Emergency Premium Pay Ordinance requires a variety of businesses categorized as essential by the governor’s public health emergency executive orders and that employ more than 50 people to pay workers who are exposed to the public or other workers an extra $30 to $75 per shift, depending on the length of the shift. To qualify for the extra pay, an employee must earn $15 an hour or less.

Serrano said the purpose of the bill is to provide a boost for low-paid employees who have been most responsible for keeping the economy running during the pandemic.

Andersen objected to the broad definition of essential workers, which ranges from grocery store clerks to laundromat attendants. Cole said potential punishments for violating the rule, which include petty misdemeanor charges, in addition to civil penalties, are unnecessarily onerous, calling the ordinance “heavy-handed.”

Sick leave

The proposed sick leave ordinance resembles others proposed in previous years, which have stalled in the council or been defeated at the ballot box.

The councilors’ proposal would require employers to allow full-time workers to take up to 80 hours of sick leave – enough for a two-week quarantine – through the end of 2020.

The bill also allows for a more conventional paid sick leave system, to be implemented on a permanent basis in 2021. That system would require employers to provide up to 56 hours per year of leave for mental and physical illnesses, injuries and preventive medical care for workers and their families.

Andersen said the proposal uses the pandemic as a reason to set up mandatory paid sick leave in perpetuity. Cole said the emergency portion of the sick leave bill may be largely redundant after a recent federal law requiring certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave if they can’t work due to COVID-19.

“We are a long way from getting to the end of this pandemic and all business right now is still struggling,” Cole said.

Despite that, Serrano said some employees still lack sick leave, and the pandemic underscores the perils of forcing employees to choose between their health and their income.

“It’s a response to the immediate need, and it’s a response to the long-term need,” she said.

The bills will be discussed during a council meeting June 29. If approved, the ordinances would go into effect five days later.

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