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Editorial: Healthy Workplace proposal is better, but it’s the wrong Rx in pandemic

Nothing has laid bare the need for sick leave like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And nothing like the pandemic has hurt local businesses more.

So while we understand the move by City Councilors Lan Sena and Pat Davis to revive government-mandated paid leave, their proposed ordinance still goes too far and will weaken and shutter businesses, putting many of the very people Sena and Davis are trying to help out of work during one of the toughest economies of our lifetime.

Council Bill 20-39, The Healthy Families And Workplaces Ordinance To Require That Employers In The City Provide Paid Leave To Employees, comes from a good place and includes important adjustments to previous sick leave attempts.

This new proposal is cleaner, with paid leave that can be taken for any reason, earned at a rate of an hour for every 32 worked. It is phased in, with businesses with 10 or more employees required to comply by Jan. 1 and businesses with fewer than 10 employees given until January 2022 to comply. It caps accrual at 56 hours. It caps penalties at $500. It excludes small businesses that employ a spouse, kids, nieces or nephews. It exempts businesses that are already more generous with paid time off. It requires the council to review how it is working annually.

But.

It ultimately mandates paid time off from businesses with as few as three employees. It says any employee who works as little as 56 hours in a year accrues leave, with no distinction between full-time, part-time, seasonal and temporary employees. It creates a new city bureaucracy to educate employers and employees on the ordinance, investigate complaints, levy and collect fines and file lawsuits. It lets the city demand an employer open all records for all employees to see if any violations have occurred. It lets the city suspend business registrations for failing to comply with a notice of inspection within 45 days. And if the city bureaucracy is incompetent/ineffective and doesn’t get the employee an answer within 90 days, the employee can file a civil lawsuit – and collect punitive damages in addition to actual.

And you thought setting up for curbside pickup was a challenge.

Supporters have said the pandemic makes the proposal more important than ever, but it is worth noting federal coronavirus sick leave protects most employees and employers affected by COVID-19, though it needs renewing in 2021. This local plan puts a new burden on businesses as many hang on by a thread during coronavirus closures and restrictions.

Local business groups have universally, and predictably, derided the plan. Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, says “small businesses need help, not regulation, and relief, not higher costs.” And Ernie C de Baca, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, says “forced to choose whether to pay their employees for leave or to continue to operate, many will have no alternative but simply to shut down permanently, leading to even greater unemployment and poverty among women, people of color and immigrants.”

It is clear some form of paid leave compromise should be reached – the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research found 36% of Albuquerque’s private-sector workers don’t have paid sick leave and only 10% of those with household incomes beneath $15,000 per year do.

Our local business groups need to acknowledge this need, and be willing to come to the table to help craft a sick leave ordinance that includes workers at small businesses and who are not full-time.

But there needs to be a compromise that cuts the smallest employers a break; acknowledges the differences in full-time, part-time, seasonal and temporary employment; separates those companies simply struggling with record-keeping from true bad actors; and protects decent business owners from fishing expeditions through their files.

Pushing through the current proposal at any time will hurt our local businesses and ultimately their employees. But doing it right now would be catastrophic.

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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