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Editorial: NM businesses need Senate to amend the flawed paid-leave bill

Supporters of the Healthy Workplaces Act argue it would reduce the spread of illness in the workplace while protecting employees who otherwise face the non-choice of working sick to pay bills or staying home with the wolf at the door.

It’s a laudable goal. The pandemic has put front-and-center the risks not only of community spread but of income insecurity. Much of our business community agrees some paid time off is important for a healthy workforce and private sector.

Unfortunately, lawmakers have thus far ignored business owners’ pleas for common-sense compromises; the House approved the Healthy Workplaces Act on Sunday by a slim vote, sending it over to the Senate.

As written, House Bill 20 goes far beyond the paid leave policies considered and/or adopted by most other states, cities and counties, including the paid-time off ordinance passed by the Bernalillo County Commission in August 2019. It makes no exceptions for small businesses. According to the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, it would apply to babysitters, a leaf-raker hired for a single day’s work or a mom-and-pop shop with one part-time employee. All employees would accrue at least one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capping at 64 hours annually.

Our business leaders have warned of the bill’s overreach, without affect. They have asked for middle-ground approaches such as staggering implementation to give businesses of different sizes time to prepare, tax credits to offset the costs of providing paid leave, a fair process for resolving disputes that doesn’t burden businesses and enrich attorneys with frivolous claims, recognition of existing leave policies as an adequate substitute, a statewide preemption of local paid leave ordinances to avoid a patchwork of differing laws, and most importantly, exempting the very smallest of businesses.

HB 20 also includes a large dose of hypocrisy – no public employers. It’s hard to fathom why the state shouldn’t subject government to the same requirements it imposes on businesses. Co-sponsor Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, says she and others determined governments generally offer benefits exceeding what’s in HB 20, so it was unnecessary. Really? Do all summer lifeguards, substitute teachers and others get these benefits?

The fiscal impact report doesn’t even try to calculate the costs it would impose on state agencies or private businesses. As Dana Carvey’s Church Lady would say: “How convenient.”

The Bernalillo County ordinance (which as a PTO program would not qualify under HB 20 as sufficient) shows compromise can work for all: It is phased in, applies only to businesses in unincorporated areas with at least two employees, requires employers to provide workers with at least one hour of paid time off for every 32 hours worked, and exempts new businesses for 12 months. Meanwhile, the full weight of HB 20 would kick in 90 days after it’s signed into law, with fines up to $1,000 or three times the wages they should have been paid, whichever is greater, plus damages. That’s hardly a jump-start for a state economy that shed 140,000 jobs last year.

There’s no reason a paid leave bill can’t protect workers while accommodating the concerns of small businesses struggling to stay open or reopen. We can and should do both.

It’s up to the Senate to fix this flawed legislation. Getting the business community involved is crucial to a fair bill that gives workers the peace of mind knowing they can take a paid sick day while not over-burdening struggling N.M. businesses.

NM businesses need Senate to amend the flawed paid-leave bill

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.