When the contentious Healthy Workplaces Act passed the New Mexico Legislature in the waning days of the 60-day regular session in March 2021, lawmakers did private employers a solid by holding off implementation until July 1, 2022, giving them more than a year to get up to speed on the law’s requirements.
But five months after workers began accruing mandatory paid sick leave, it’s clear there’s still some confusion about the law as reflected in the number of complaints filed with the Department of Workforce Solutions about possible violations.
So far, about 30 complaints have been filed and about half had been resolved as of last week. Considering the number of small businesses scattered across the state — nearly 155,000 according to the U.S. Small Business Administration — 30 complaints is an extraordinarily small number. Advocates suggest that’s because workers still don’t understand their rights under the new law.
Stephanie Welch, the director of worker’s rights for the nonprofit New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said some workers are still being told by their bosses they are not eligible for paid sick leave.
“What I’m hearing from employees is they’re asking supervisors for paid time off and they’re saying, ‘That doesn’t apply to us,'” Welch said Friday.
But she said it’s not clear whether such responses stem from confusion about the law or resistance to it — or possibly a combination of both factors.
To be clear, the law mandates all private businesses — large or small — provide paid sick leave for all employees, whether part-time, full-time or seasonal. Employees will earn one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, or up to eight days annually for full-time employees.
Lawmakers ginned up controversy by excluding government employees from the mandate. While we agree the law should have applied to all types of employees, not just those in the private sector, most New Mexico state, county and municipal employees already had access to paid sick leave. The law focused on employees who have often had to work through illness because they couldn’t afford not to show up for work, putting the workplace at risk for communicable disease.
New Mexico is now one of 16 states that require businesses to allow their workers to take paid time off to deal with illness or injury — for themselves or family members.
Before winning legislative approval, the paid sick leave proposal generated fierce debate at the Roundhouse about its potential impact on small businesses, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics predicted paid sick leave would impose a financial burden on businesses whose profits plummeted during the pandemic, but backers countered that requiring employers to provide paid sick leave would increase employee retention.
It’s too early to know which argument is tracking as most accurate. But with another 60-day legislative session approaching, Department of Workforce Solutions spokeswoman Stacy Johnston said the agency is not planning on seeking additional funding for enforcement efforts.
Our concern is that decision is based on a low case load for complaints, which may stem from lack of awareness. Just ahead of the implementation, then-acting DWS Secretary Ricky Serna said the agency was “going to put a lot of trust in education and mitigation” in the hopes that enforcement would be a secondary concern.
Serna has since been named cabinet secretary of the Department of Transportation. Sarita Nair has assumed to role of secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions, which has the authority to file civil actions against businesses that violate the law. But, of course, those violations will only come to light if enough workers understand the full scope of the law.
It behooves the state to pinpoint whether better outreach and public awareness or heavier enforcement is the key to ensuring compliance — especially with the triple threat of COVID-19 variants, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and influenza poised to force the issue.
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.