Born via emergency cesarean section nearly three months early, Ava Nuanes spent the first 2½ months of her life in the newborn intensive care unit of an Albuquerque hospital.
Some days, neither of Ava’s parents were able to be there with her.
Her mother, Monique, had suffered a placental abruption and required hospitalization for two weeks after Ava’s summer 2019 birth. The physical fallout continued well after her discharge and Monique was occasionally too sick to return to her daughter’s bedside.
Ava’s father, meanwhile, was working for a corporate dentistry chain that provided him no paid leave, putting him among about 100,000 private-sector Albuquerque workers without the benefit. He took a few weeks off without compensation, but it was a financial struggle; the new parents had to cash out a retirement account and borrow from family to keep up with household bills, student loans and mounting medical expenses.
Working was essential, even while Monique was home sick and Ava was in the incubator.
“Ava was alone in the NICU some days and that was really heartbreaking to us,” Monique said. “That’s just time you can’t get back and you’re just constantly worried about what’s going to happen with her next.”
Monique believes the stress of the past year – which she says led to postpartum anxiety and depression – might have been eased had her husband had paid leave.
“If we even had a little bit of paid time off, it would’ve helped tremendously,” she said.
That’s what the Nuanes’ city councilor, Lan Sena, is working toward. Sena and Pat Davis have co-sponsored legislation that would guarantee paid leave for nearly every Albuquerque worker by 2022.
The council is slated to vote on it Monday.
And, once again, the issue is facing strong pushback from the business community, which says passage of such a law would create an undue burden on small businesses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. State health orders have shuttered many businesses, at least temporarily, and others have seen their revenues plummet as well.
The bill would require companies with at least 10 employees to provide paid leave starting Jan. 1, though workers are not entitled to use it for the first 90 days. The leave could be used for any purpose, and is not limited to illness of an employee or their family.
Smaller businesses – those with three to nine employees – must start offering the leave by Jan. 1, 2022.
The ordinance requires that all workers earn at least one hour of leave per 32 hours worked up to 56 hours of leave annually. It covers temporary employees and part-timers as long as they spend at least 56 hours on the job in a year.
Nearly half of the city’s private-sector businesses do not offer paid leave to their workers, according to the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research, which conducted a city-funded study in 2018 and provided a partial update earlier this year.
Those businesses have 100,601 employees.
The city’s poorest residents are far less likely to have the benefit – 90% of workers in households with incomes below $15,000 lack paid leave, BBER found. Only 20% of those in households that earn $75,000-$99,999 go without it.
Retail workers, and leisure and hospitality employees – such as restaurant workers – are less likely to have paid leave than those in other industries.
The new Sena/Davis push to dramatically expand access follows years of debate and discussion within the Albuquerque community and among elected officials. Though Bernalillo County recently implemented a paid leave ordinance for such unincorporated areas as the South Valley and the East Mountains, every previous effort to implement a citywide paid sick leave policy has fizzled, having repeatedly encountered fierce resistance from business associations.
COVID-19 has only deepened the divide.
Supporters say the worst public health crisis in a century has demonstrated why paid leave is essential. They note that Congress even passed a federal law earlier this year mandating that workers get two weeks of paid sick leave for COVID-19-related absences and reimbursing businesses via tax credits, although the requirements expire Dec. 31.
“There’s a highly infectious virus spreading and it’s been impacting so many of us at so many different levels, whether it’s actually getting sick from it, being hospitalized from it, or seeing businesses shut down,” Sena said. “It’s opened our eyes to how important it is to really stay home when you’re sick.”
Paid leave supporters argue some workers, especially in low-wage jobs, literally cannot afford to stay home when they are sick, leading to larger public health concerns.
According to BBER’s 2018 research, Albuquerque workers without paid leave reported for duty while sick an average of 3.5 times in the preceding year.
COVID-19 drove home the risk of such a climate for Iman Andrade. The Albuquerque woman quit a job as a pizza delivery driver earlier this year because she felt her workplace – where employees had no sick leave and did not seem to take the virus seriously – was too unsafe.
She recently took a retail job that offers paid leave, a first for her. She has worked all her life without the benefit, including as a caregiver, at wages barely enough to cover her bills. Before COVID-19, financial pressures compelled her to go to work even when she felt unwell. She worries about the many others like her who cannot forego a paycheck and who may choose to work even if they have COVID-19.
“Nobody should have to go into work sick. Nobody should have to make that decision,” she said.
But critics of mandatory paid leave – who have consistently argued it will raise business costs – contend that implementing it in this moment ignores the pandemic’s profound economic effects. New Mexico public health orders designed to limit the virus’ spread have forced many businesses to restrict their operations or, in some cases, temporarily close.
Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Terri Cole has described the new paid leave proposal as “grasping, unserious and disappointing” given COVID-19’s impact.
At Duran Central Pharmacy, for example, business is down 50%-60% this year, according to Jay Guthrie, operations manager for the business’ restaurant and gift shop. The company has had to lay off staff.
“The timing is not right” for a city paid leave ordinance, Guthrie said.
He said Duran’s does not oppose paid leave; in fact, it formally implemented such a benefit this summer. But ongoing economic challenges and uncertainty make it nearly impossible to gauge the long-term feasibility of the new program, Guthrie said. While the company intends to keep the benefit, he worries about being subject to a city mandate.
“We just don’t want to be hit in the face with it,” he said.
The proposed ordinance would also create logistical headaches at Cliff’s Amusement Park, according to general manager Justin Hays. Cliff’s hires 350-400 seasonal workers, primarily teenagers, each summer. The park schedules several extra employees per day to account for seven to 10 unplanned absences, but Hays worries that number would go up with paid leave.
“This gives our employees, who are already not very reliable – because they’re young, they call in (absent) a lot and want a lot of time off – this incentivizes them to be … in my opinion less dependable,” he said.
Hays said the change would also raise costs for the park, which has now been closed for 13 months having lost its entire 2020 summer season due to COVID-19.
While the city of Albuquerque has provided business relief during the pandemic – including a small-business grant program totaling $10 million – this bill provides no specific funding to help cover expenses.
Providing 56 hours of paid leave would cost businesses with 10-plus employees an average of $1,021 per worker annually, according to BBER.
BBER’s research says that the policy would create a “small net impact” on the Albuquerque economy, largely by increasing household incomes.
“For every dollar of additional costs to businesses impacted by the mandate, spending by households and accounting services (for administering the benefit) would result in $1.17 of additional sales by Albuquerque-based businesses,” BBER’s study says.
Sena said there are a number of ways paid leave will benefit the larger community, noting that its uses are far-reaching and go well beyond COVID-19.
Advocates for domestic violence victims, for example, say survivors often require time off to attend court hearings, or find new housing or new schools for their children.
And Sena says she wants Albuquerque workers to have time to tend not just to their own needs, but also to care for ailing spouses, children or other family members.
Monique Nuanes wants that, too.
While her daughter Ava, now 15 months, is at home and the family is catching up financially, Monique said the past year was harder than it needed to be.
“Our family serves as a perfect example of the burden families can face when having no (paid time off),” she said. “We just pray that in the future this is no longer an obstacle for parents in a similar situation.”