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SANTA FE – A New Mexico paid sick leave bill was retooled Tuesday in a Senate committee to include state and local government employees, a change that could raise cost concerns but that backers said was needed to address fairness issues.
After a lengthy and occasionally testy debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 to send the paid leave bill back to the full Senate, where it had been before the panel’s chairman requested his committee be able to further vet the measure.
The chairman, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, cast the tiebreaking vote to advance the bill, House Bill 20, but only after asking the measure’s sponsors to promise they would not undo the committee’s changes.
The Democratic bill sponsors responded by saying they that would not pursue such action themselves but that they could not control the actions of other lawmakers during the final days of the 60-day legislative session.
“I can commit that we will not try to amend the bill. … I can’t speak to what could happen elsewhere,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos.
If the bill passes the Senate, it will have to return to the House due to the added amendments.
The paid sick leave bill 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.
Specifically, the bill would allow workers to take up to 64 hours of accrued leave per year. Employees could start accruing leave once the bill takes effect or when they start a new job, whichever is later.
About 15 other states already have paid sick leave laws on their books, including neighboring Colorado and Arizona, although many of them exempt small businesses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The proposal under consideration at the Capitol would not exempt small employers. 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.
Critics have said the amount of leave in the bill exceeds amounts required in other states’ sick leave ordinances.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, argued during Tuesday’s committee hearing that the bill should be rewritten to be similar to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and, at one point, asked bill sponsors whether they would allow him to do so.
After they declined the offer, Ivey-Soto joined the committee’s three Republican members in voting against the bill, describing it as “amazingly problematic,” referring to what he considered an added burden on businesses.
“Wanting a headline and implementing details are two separate things,” Ivey-Soto said after the vote to advance the bill was taken.
The paid sick leave bill has now been amended in several Senate committees since narrowly passing the House last month.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham suggested before the House vote that this was the wrong time for lawmakers to pass bills imposing new requirements on businesses, but she said she would sign the legislation after backers agreed to postpone its effective date from this summer to July 2022.
But it was unclear whether the governor would still support the bill after Tuesday’s changes, as it was initially drafted to apply only to private sector employers, not those who work in the public sector.
Supporters said the change was unnecessary because most, if not all, New Mexico state, county and municipal employees already have access to paid sick leave.
But critics said, in that case, the change would not impose any costs on state and local governments and would ensure equal treatment of employees.
“If we’re going to force small businesses to do this, it only sends the right message to have state agencies do it, too,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.
In addition, the bill had previously proposed allowing employees to take an additional 80 hours of paid sick leave during declared public health emergencies – like the COVID-19 pandemic – but that provision was also stripped out during Tuesday’s committee hearing.
This year’s debate has featured testimony from grocery store workers who have said they have to choose between going to work while sick or losing part of their paycheck.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said some businesses do not provide their workers with any sick leave, even in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s for our front-line workers that have gotten sick, that have gotten other people sick and that have helped spread COVID-19 because they were not able take sick leave,” Stewart said during Tuesday’s debate.
Business groups 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.
Bernalillo County has adopted a paid sick leave 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.
The 60-day session ends at noon Saturday.