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Editorial: Could benefit plans be a final blow for businesses?

“If this passes, Garcia’s will probably close a couple of locations. There’s going to be a lot of businesses that close. … It’s going to come to where we put a ‘closed’ sign on our door.”

– Dan Garcia, owner of Garcia’s restaurants

“If I had known that Albuquerque, that our elected officials, feel this way about business I never would have come to Albuquerque.”

– George Gundrey, owner of Tomasita’s restaurants

“We’re already trying to scramble and figure out how we’re going to make ends meet.”

– Angel Huddleston, North Bar Industries

Two Albuquerque city councilors will ask the full council tomorrow to take up revised hazard pay and sick leave proposals that will affect most private employers in the city, including the three above who voiced their concerns to KRQE-Channel 13 last week.

And while business owners have been sounding off, if councilors proceed, they will take up the proposals without input from these or other local employers via the usual committee hearing process.

That, of course, is the best chance these councilors have of getting this through. Previous sick leave proposals have failed in committee and at the ballot box. And a one-sided take makes it much easier to approve a $25-a-shift hazard pay for essential workers during the pandemic, to impose $200 teach-’em-a-lesson fines for not having face masks on hand and to add local penalties to the federal 80 hours of pandemic leave.

Because listening to folks who have to make payroll, like Garcia and Gundrey and Huddleston, who have been shuttered since mid-March or operating at limited capacity because of state health restrictions and are already in tough financial straits, makes your decision harder.

The Journal Editorial Board has said repeatedly, most recently last week, that especially during a pandemic you do not want employees facing the impossible choice of staying home sick and not making rent versus going in sick and infecting others. And the board has also voiced concern for the many business owners hit hard by the pandemic and resultant closures while recognizing it is those closures that likely deserve the lion’s share of credit in helping New Mexico avoid the terrifying spikes in neighboring states. (Although the reason why counties like Harding, Catron, Quay, Union, Colfax, Lincoln and Sierra – all with single-digit case totals – are treated the same as other counties remains a mystery.)

And we recognize that especially considering the evolving science and the spike in COVID-19 cases in Texas, Arizona, Utah, California, etc., wearing a mask during a pandemic is a matter not only of good public manners but of good public health.

But the proposals from Councilors Isaac Benton and Lan Sena, though revised late Friday, still endanger the jobs of the very people they are trying to help. And this 11th-hour fast track of revisions and amendments sans public comment makes it highly unlikely those affected will have time to digest the proposals before a vote, the antithesis of accountable, transparent government. The latest proposals would:

• Add unaffordable “premium pay” of $10-$25 a shift for employees making $12 an hour or less at “essential” companies with at least 50 workers, and include criminal charges and civil liability for violations.

• Mandate high fines of $200 each time an employer doesn’t supply a mask to an employee. The proposal also appears to require employers – and thus employees – to ensure customers wear masks, setting them up for confrontations. Even the governor has acknowledged she is depending on voluntary compliance when it comes to her wear-a-mask edict.

• Unnecessarily mirror the 80 hours for COVID-19-related emergency leave already covered by the feds, and then add on new requirements. As with prior local sick leave proposals, the city would be able to “review records regarding all workers at the employer’s worksite.” Employers could be taken directly to court, where they face civil penalties and triple liquidated damages, and employers would be assumed guilty of retaliation if they discipline an employee for any reason within 90 days of taking the leave. In an odd expansion, the bill considers independent contractors employees for the purposes of sick leave. The city also gets $50 a week for each violation, and in a sick incentivization, the department that enforces the law gets to keep that cash.

The sponsors now say they will wait until August to try to permanently institute 56 hours of sick leave for employees to care for themselves, immediate family members and “any other individual or relative whose close association with the worker or worker’s spouse or domestic partner is the equivalent of a family relationship.” (That was in the two councilors’ original proposal for consideration Monday.) This proposal has failed before during a healthy economy, and this is anything but. Giving the public more time to digest how bad this proposal is makes sense.

The Albuquerque Coalition for a Healthy Economy (ACHE), which includes the New Mexico Restaurant Association and the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, has come out against the proposals, as has the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and multiple other business groups. All say the ordinances will severely hurt businesses still struggling to recover from the pandemic.

Councilors Don Harris and Brook Bassan have asked for an economic impact study on the 80 hours of sick leave and the premium hazard pay. Considering there have been zero committee meetings on these plans, much less a true cost-benefit analysis, that’s more than reasonable.

And with two councilors sponsoring and two questioning, it will be up to Councilors Klarissa Peña, Cynthia Borrego, Trudy Jones and Council Vice President Diane Gibson and Council President Pat Davis to drag the focus back to the reason Monday’s meeting was scheduled – the city’s loss of gross receipts revenue and budget woes – and not on proposals that make it even harder for businesses to recover from the COVID-19 shutdown.

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.

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