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Paid sick leave bill passes Senate amid turmoil

A hotly-debated bill that would allow New Mexico private sector workers to accrue and use up to 64 hours of paid sick leave annually passed the Senate early Friday morning on a 25-16 vote. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — A New Mexico paid sick leave bill is on the brink of approval at the Roundhouse, after the Senate voted 25-16 to approve a revised measure during a turbulent floor session that stretched into the early hours of Friday morning.

The late-night debate on the measure, House Bill 20, became heated after Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, proposed amending the bill to undo a Senate committee change that extended the sick leave mandate to cover state and local government employees.

After a lengthy line of questioning and requests to read parts of the bill, Stewart said she would no longer yield to questions from Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who voted against the legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Shortly thereafter, Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, rose to describe Ivey-Soto’s actions as “bullying”, prompting applause from other senators.

Senators then recessed for about 30 minutes in an attempt to calm the atmosphere.

When they returned, Ivey-Soto said he was passionate about ensuring all employees are protected but did not intend to be abusive.

“If my passion came out as anger, I apologize,” Ivey-Soto said.

But that didn’t stop a barrage of criticism, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, stopped debate in the House on an unrelated bill to address the tension in the Senate.

He acknowledged it’s usually out of order to mention anything happening in the other chamber, but he said legislative staffers were in tears over the treatment of Stewart.

“To see a member of that body attack a fellow senator in a cruel and vicious way reeks of the worst type of misogyny and male arrogance,” Egolf said.

The amendment ultimately passed on a narrow vote, with backers saying the paid leave mandate was crafted to apply only to private sector workers — not government employees.

Supporters also said most New Mexico state, county and municipal employees already have access to paid sick leave, though they acknowledged some seasonal and part-time workers might not.

But critics said the paid sick leave mandate that would take effect next summer should be applied to all types of employees.

Fierce debate and then a prayer

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.

They also said many front-line workers have had to decide between going to work while sick during the pandemic, or staying home and risking losing part of their paycheck.

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.

While Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham previously expressed misgivings about the paid leave bill, she said she would sign the legislation after backers agreed to postpone its effective date from this summer to July 2022.

But Republican critics of the bill launched blistering criticism during the late-night debate, while trying unsuccessfully to further amend the bill.

“I think this whole bill is a real slap in the face to business owners in the state of New Mexico,” said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, at one point during the debate.

And Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, held the Senate floor for more than an hour while delivering a lengthy monologue that focused largely on political divisions within the Senate and New Mexicans at large.

He at one point vowed to keep talking until sunrise, but eventually yielded the floor after asking for a moment of silence.

The bill then passed on a largely party-line vote, with Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, joining GOP senators in voting against the bill. Ivey-Soto was not present for the vote.

The emotional evening in the Senate then ended shortly after 2:30 a.m. with Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, delivering a prayer.

Nearing the finish line

With the 60-day legislative session set to end Saturday at noon, the paid sick leave bill now goes back to the House since some Senate amendments were left in place.

Both the House and Senate have to agree on the same version of the bill before legislative adjournment in order to send the legislation to the governor’s desk.

Nationwide, about 15 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.

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.

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report

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