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Private employers in New Mexico may no longer get to decide whether paid sick leave is a benefit they want to offer their workers.

This story also appeared in Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill that would ensure employees in the state have access to paid time off when they’re sick cleared the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee on a party-line 6-3 vote Sunday. “Access to paid sick leave protects workplaces, families, and communities statewide,” read a tweet sent from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s account minutes after the vote. “I appreciate so many key stakeholders being at the table for this important discussion and I look forward to signing this legislation when it gets to my desk.”

Known as the Healthy Workplaces Act, House Bill 20 would require private employers in the state to provide workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work, or 64 hours per year. The bill, which doesn’t prohibit an employer from offering more generous benefits, includes misdemeanor and financial penalties for violations of the proposed law.

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives on a 36-33 vote Feb. 28, heads next to the full Senate.

The measure has sparked opposition from business owners who say the mandate will not only be costly but comes on the heels of a public health crisis that has decimated their finances. Efforts to exempt smaller businesses from the proposed law have failed.

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said her organization supports a statewide policy on mandatory sick leave “so long as it’s reasonable and accommodating to small employers.”

Bill Lee, a business owner and member of the Gallup-McKinley County Chamber of Commerce, said he’s experienced a year-over-year loss of more than 90 percent. “While I thank the legislative bodies for their hard work and their help provided during the session,” he said, referring to several pandemic relief measures, “that aid is short term and the devastating effect of bills like HB 20 will go on in perpetuity.”

Bill McCamley, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, told lawmakers the governor would support the bill as long as its implementation is delayed by a year. He said the administration believes the year delay “not only helps the business community adjust” to the mandate but also would allow his department “to properly plan, train our workers to enforce it and also ask for additional support in next year’s budget.”

“If there are two things that the pandemic has revealed to us, it is the a) importance of our essential workers that are out there on the front lines every day … but No. 2, it has also revealed how no one should have to go to work sick,” he said. “That’s really, really bad for the workers themselves, and it’s bad for all of us that are their friends and neighbors in the community that interact with them.”

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said he was happy to hear the governor would sign the bill as proposed. “I think that needed to be said. I think that was super important to other legislators who are paying attention to this,” he said.

Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, called it a “tough bill.” Hickey, who represents a socioeconomically diverse district, said he’s been receiving “very, very heavy emails and calls” from constituents who want him to support the bill while also hearing from small-business owners who say the mandate is going to be very difficult to meet. While he said he’s “very empathetic” to business owners, he said he can “do no harm” as a physician, referring to the Hippocratic Oath. “For me, I would be doing harm if I were not to support this bill, and so my apologies to the top part of my district, but I have to follow my oath of do no harm and stand in support of this bill,” Hickey said.

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.

Under the bill, workers would have wide discretion over how to use the sick leave they earn. “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, according to a fiscal impact report on the bill.

Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, said “many people” from his Northern New Mexico district reached out to him urging him to support the bill.

“As a chief of staff,” said Jaramillo, who works at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “I know that our greatest asset as employers is our workforce and so I’m thankful for this bill.”

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