Paid sick leave would no longer be a privilege but a right in New Mexico under a bill the state House of Representatives passed Sunday.

This story also appeared in Santa Fe New Mexican

Private employers in New Mexico would be required to provide workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work, or 64 hours per year, under House Bill 20, which was narrowly approved in a 36-33 vote after a three-hour discussion and debate.

“This is a bill that is a long time coming and a long time overdue,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, one of the sponsors.

Supporters of the measure described it as a basic protection for employees, particularly low-wage earners who sometimes have to choose between going to work sick or risk losing their jobs. But opponents argued it would hurt small businesses, particularly those still struggling to get back on their feet after the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This bill is reflective of big business, big government and payroll practices where the margins are sufficient to cover these kinds of contingencies,” said Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs. “I believe that if this legislation passes, small businesses will suffer.”

Known as the Healthy Workplaces Act, the proposed law, which has generated opposition from business groups, would create a right to paid sick leave for employees in New Mexico, including leave for the care of family members.

The bill also establishes “supplemental sick leave during a public health emergency” of 80 hours or twice the weekly number of hours for part-time employees, according to a fiscal impact report.

“Earned sick leave could be used for any type of personal or family member illness or health condition or medical care, curative or preventive,” including to attend school meetings related to a child’s disability and absences connected to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking of the employee or a family member, the report states.

The bill applies only to private employers, which sparked an unsuccessful effort by Republicans to offer the same benefit to state and other government employees.

“It bothers me considerably that we would propose something from this House that we say is to the great benefit of all the employees out there, but we exclude our own,” Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia said.

Chandler countered that public employees already receive sick leave that meets or exceeds what is proposed in the legislation.

“Public employers, such as cities, counties and state, generally offer very generous compensation and leave packages,” she said.

Republican lawmakers also pushed to exempt employers with fewer than 10 employees.

The bill lists numerous purposes, including ensuring that all employees can address their personal and family health and safety needs and reducing health care costs and promoting preventive health services “by enabling employees to seek early and routine medical care.” The bill also addresses “the concern that many New Mexico employees currently have no access to sick leave.”

Employers would be subject to monetary penalties for violating the proposed law.

“This is about bringing equity to workers, especially to the most vulnerable in our economy,” Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque, said. “This bill is really about our people and about providing opportunities for our people to keep safe, for them to have equity in the workplace and for them to have dignity when they’re sick or they need to take care of somebody.”

Employers could only ask for verification of the use of sick leave after two consecutive days of absences, which Scott said could lead employees “to perhaps get a day off here or there” when they aren’t actually sick.

The bill doesn’t prevent employers from offering more generous benefits.