Invoking the state’s rising COVID-19 infection rate and death toll, a pair of Albuquerque city councilors are pushing a new proposal to require that employers give their workers access to paid leave.
Councilors Lan Sena and Pat Davis are introducing new legislation that would guarantee workers at Albuquerque businesses with at least 10 employees have a paid leave benefit starting in January, and those at smaller companies get it by 2022.
It is the newest proposal in a yearslong community debate over paid sick leave and follows several unsuccessful attempts to advance such a mandate in Albuquerque, though Bernalillo County recently implemented a version for the county’s unincorporated areas.
While proponents argue that paid leave is a basic human right and that workers – especially those who earn the least – should not have to choose between income and staying home when they are sick, the business community has consistently mobilized against such proposals, contending that they raise costs and are potentially ruinous.
Sena – who had advocated for paid sick leave even before Mayor Tim Keller in March appointed her to fill a city council vacancy – said the pandemic has only increased the need for such a benefit. She cited 2018 city-funded research that found Albuquerque workers without paid leave had, on average, reported for duty while sick for 3.5 days in the preceding year.
“Now as we’re in a public health emergency, we’re seeing how critical it is to stay home if you are sick,” Sena said in a virtual news conference Friday morning.
But at least one large business association is already raising concerns.
Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses are barely clinging to life as it is due to the pandemic, and a new mandate could be devastating.
“Small businesses need help, not regulation and relief, not higher costs,” Cole said in a statement to the Journal.
She said using the pandemic as a reason to mandate paid sick leave is “grasping, unserious and disappointing.”
Albuquerque voters narrowly defeated a paid sick leave proposal on the 2017 election ballot, and more recent attempts to implement it via legislation have also fizzled.
Just last month, the Albuquerque City Council struck down a proposal that would have established a task force to explore potential paid sick leave requirements and make recommendations.
Sena, Davis and Isaac Benton joined that bill’s sponsor, Diane Gibson, in favor.
Brook Bassan, Cynthia Borrego, Don Harris, Trudy Jones and Klarissa Peña voted it down.
Davis – who in 2018 introduced a paid sick leave bill that died without a hearing – said this proposal is different from past versions. It calls for a generic “paid time off” benefit, rather than specific leave only for health reasons. Davis said that reflects feedback from some in the business community who had concerns about the narrow tailoring of older bills.
The new proposal “gives businesses the flexibility to provide it in a way that works best for them,” Davis said.
The city’s 2018 paid sick leave study, conducted by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, found that 36% of Albuquerque’s private sector workers – just over 100,000 people – lack paid sick leave. It is particularly rare among the lowest-paid workers – only 10% of those with household incomes beneath $15,000 per year have paid sick leave, BBER found.
“Paid time off is a public health issue, it is an equity issue,” Shelley Mann-Lev, co-president of the New Mexico Public Health Association, said during Friday’s news conference.
The new proposal, which will be formally introduced next week and likely heard by a council committee later in the month, would require that Albuquerque workers, including part-timers and seasonal employees, accrue at least 1 hour of paid leave for every 32 hours worked, up to 56 hours per year.
It would take effect Jan. 1 at companies with at least 10 workers, and on Jan. 1, 2022, at companies with at least three workers.
Bernalillo County recently implemented a paid leave benefit for the county’s unincorporated areas, including the South Valley and East Mountains, for all businesses with at least two employees. Requirements vary based on business size.