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Paid sick leave bill advances to Senate floor

Jake Sandoval, a produce manager, stocks onions at an Albertson’s grocery store in Albuquerque’s South Valley in this April 2020 file photo. A mandatory sick leave bill that would allow New Mexico private sector employees to accrue and use up to 64 hours of paid leave annually is headed to the Senate after passing its final assigned Senate panel on Sunday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A hotly debated sick leave bill that would allow New Mexico private sector employees to accrue and use about a week and a half of paid leave per year moved to the brink of final approval Sunday.

A Senate committee voted 6-3 along party lines to send the measure to the full Senate, with Democrats voting in favor of the bill and Republicans in opposition.

Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, said after Sunday’s vote by the Senate Taxation, Business and Transportation Committee that she was optimistic the bill would be approved by the Senate before the 60-day legislative session ends Saturday.

“I think this could be a phenomenal moment for workers in the state,” Chandler told the Journal.

The paid sick leave bill, House Bill 20, has generated fierce debate at the Roundhouse after a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on workers and businesses alike.

Critics of the bill have argued it would impose another financial burden on businesses whose sales have plummeted during the pandemic, but backers described their concerns as overblown at a time when many businesses are getting state and federal financial aid.

“I feel confident this will not be the detriment it’s been represented as today,” Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, said during Sunday’s hearing.

The mandatory paid leave bill has moved forward in the Senate after backers agreed to postpone its implementation date from this summer to July 2022.

That concession was due partly to concerns raised by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who suggested recently that it might not be the right time for lawmakers to pass bills imposing new requirements on businesses.

However, the Democratic governor said on social media after Sunday’s committee vote that she would sign the revised legislation.

And Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley, a Lujan Grisham appointee, testified that the later effective date would give both businesses and the state agency charged with enforcing the law more time to prepare.

“No one should have to go to work sick,” McCamley said. “That’s really, really bad for them, and it’s bad for their friends and their community.”

Specifically, the legislation would allow workers to take up to 64 hours of accrued leave per year – and even more during public health emergencies. Employees could start accruing leave once the bill takes effect or when they start a new job, whichever is later.

Although 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 Capitol would not exempt smaller employers, although it would, in its current form, allow employers that already offer paid leave programs to qualify under the law as long as they meet its minimum terms.

Business groups have described the proposal as one of the most far-reaching paid leave bills in the country, while also saying their offers to help craft a statewide paid leave policy that would be less harmful to employers have largely been rebuffed.

Other critics pointed out the bill would not apply to public sector employers, just those who work in the private sector.

“We’re basically giving the government a waiver,” Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said during Sunday’s hearing.

But supporters countered by saying that most, if not all, New Mexico state, county and municipal employees already have access to paid sick leave.

The Sunday debate also focused on whether the bill would apply to workers such as babysitters and high schoolers who mow lawns. Backers maintained such individuals would be excluded as independent contractors unless they are employed by a business.

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

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 as the proposed statewide law.

Albuquerque city councilors have put off a local debate over paid sick leave to see what action lawmakers take during this year’s session.

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