Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The debate over mandatory paid employee leave hit the Legislature on Thursday, with workers saying the policy shift would allow them to stay home when sick and business groups describing it as a costly burden on already struggling establishments.
After more than three hours of testimony and debate, the chairman of the House Labor, Veterans’ and Military Affairs Committee directed the sponsors of two similar sick leave bills to work together to craft a single compromise measure that could be voted on by as soon as next week.
The sponsors of the two bills reluctantly agreed to the approach, but expressed concern with the delay.
They also said it’s time for a state law requiring businesses to offer paid time off for employees to attend to personal or family medical emergencies, even if the state’s business community is opposed to the idea.
“No one should have to choose between their paycheck and their life,” said Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, the sponsor of one of the two bills.
While previous attempts to pass a paid leave bill have stalled at the Roundhouse, this year’s proposals could face better odds due to election-related changes in the Legislature and overwhelming Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.
The measures discussed Thursday, House Bills 20 and 37, differ in how much paid leave a worker can accrue and in other details, but both are backed by a coalition of workers’ advocacy groups and labor unions.
Multiple grocery store workers called or logged in to testify during Thursday’s remote hearing, with many of them saying they currently can’t afford not to go to work even when feeling ill.
Carl Trujillo, who identified himself as a meat-cutter at a grocery store, said he has felt pressured to come to work in such situations.
“If I’m not feeling well, I should not have to deal with the public,” he said.
However, numerous business leaders and lobbyists representing industry groups said the legislation would pose a financial strain for employers at an inopportune time.
“Now is not the time for additional mandates on struggling restaurants,” said Allison Smith of the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
Specifically, opponents of the two paid leave bills noted many businesses around New Mexico are already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic and state business restrictions that have been imposed in an attempt to slow the virus’ spread.
“Inhibiting the growth of small businesses – or making it harder to start and run a small business – is not in the best interest of our state’s families, workers, fiscal future or economic outlook,” a coalition of business groups including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce said in a letter to committee members.
But the business groups indicated they might support a statewide paid leave law if it exempts very small businesses and has a delayed implementation to give employers time to prepare.
For her part, Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, a sponsor of the other paid leave bill, countered that a state law would improve overall public health.
“We do not want workers coming in to work sick,” Chandler said.
Currently, nine states have enacted paid family and medical leave laws, with California the first state to do so in 2002, according the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Other states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and New York have approved similar legislation in recent years.
Both New Mexico bills debated Thursday require the state Department of Workforce Solutions to keep records and investigate allegations of employer noncompliance.
However, Bill McCamley, the agency’s secretary, pointed out the legislation does not currently include funding to hire more workers to accomplish such tasks.
Meanwhile, the city of Albuquerque is already years into the paid leave debate, though past efforts to mandate the benefit have failed. That includes a 2017 ballot measure – which voters narrowly rejected – and bills introduced through the city council process.
But the issue remains in play, with the council’s most recent paid leave bill still pending. The council was scheduled to act on a new proposal in December but decided to delay a decision until Feb. 1, with some councilors saying they wanted to wait to see what the Legislature decided.