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Revised paid sick leave bill advances at Roundhouse

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Rudy Valdes Pino, 17, a cashier at the Dixon Cooperative Market, scans groceries in this Feb. 23 file photo. A bill that would mandate all New Mexico businesses provide paid sick leave for their employees cleared its first Senate hurdle on Monday after being amended. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE – The battle over paid sick leave for New Mexico private sector employees took a new twist Monday, with backers agreeing to delay the effective date of a mandatory leave bill until July 2022.

The pushed-back implementation date, which the bill's sponsor said was chosen with input from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office, frustrated some bill supporters and did not win over business groups that have strongly opposed the measure.

But the revised measure, House Bill 20, ultimately cleared its first assigned Senate committee Monday, moving it one step closer to final passage with the 60-day legislative session entering its homestretch.

“It's a small ask, and we believe it is long overdue,” the bill's sponsor, Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, said during a meeting of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.

Members of the committee voted 5-3 to advance the bill, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.

The bill would allow workers to take up to 64 hours of accrued leave per year – and even more during public health emergencies.

While about 12 other states already have paid sick leave laws on their books, many of them exempt small businesses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The proposal under consideration at the Roundhouse would not exempt smaller employers, although it would, in its revised form, allow employers that already offer paid leave programs to qualify under the law as long as they meet its minimum terms.

“This is one of the most burdensome bills we've seen in the U.S.,” said Carla Sonntag, president of the New Mexico Business Coalition, who predicted the legislation would lead to employees' hours being cut and jobs eliminated.

With many New Mexico employers struggling due to the pandemic and restrictions imposed in response to it, Lujan Grisham suggested recently that it might not be the right time for lawmakers to pass bills imposing new requirements on businesses.

However, Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley testified Monday in favor of the reworked bill on behalf of the Lujan Grisham administration, saying the pushed-back effective date would give both businesses and the state agency charged with enforcing the legislation more time to prepare.

“The governor believes very, very strongly that not only do workers need this directly, but having sick folks go to work is not good for them, and it's not good for the community members surrounding them,” McCamley said.

The paid leave bills filed at the Capitol this year have sparked debate between business groups and front-line workers and their advocates, with both sides citing the coronavirus pandemic as proof of their arguments.

Supporters say a statewide paid sick leave law would lead to a healthier and more productive New Mexico workforce, because workers would not feel compelled to work when sick, or leave an ailing family member alone, to ensure they get a paycheck.

During Monday's hearing, one grocery store worker testified in Spanish about the death of her husband due to COVID-19 and the rising hospital, mortgage and debt payments she has had to deal with.

And Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, voted for the bill but said the delayed effective date – it had previously been proposed to take effect in mid-June – would be harmful to workers.

“I think now is when we need it more than ever,” Sedillo Lopez said.

She also said a new federal stimulus bill recently approved by Congress includes tax credits to help businesses pay the costs of employee leave.

However, business groups expressed concern the proposed bill would apply to all types of employees, including babysitters and high schoolers who mow lawns, describing it as one of the most far-reaching paid leave bills in the country.

They also said that they have expressed a willingness to help craft a statewide paid leave policy that would be less harmful to employers but that their offers have largely been rebuffed by advocates.

In New Mexico, Bernalillo County has also adopted a paid time off ordinance, although it applies only to unincorporated parts of the county and is not as generous to employees.

The bill pending at the Roundhouse, which narrowly passed the House on Feb. 28, now advances to the Senate Taxation, Business and Transportation Committee. If endorsed by that panel, it will advance to the full Senate.

However, the House would also have to sign off on the Senate changes to the bill for it to go to Lujan Grisham's desk for final approval.

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