February 20, 2017

Wrangling continues on raising New Mexico minimum wage

A proposal to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage drew opposition from business organizations and workers rights groups alike on Monday.

Co-sponsored by House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, House Bill 442 would appear to be a compromise that boosts the statewide minimum hourly wage to $9.25 from $7.50, less of an increase than some Democrats have proposed.

But a section of the bill that would strip local governments of the power to adopt certain labor regulations, such as the Work Week Act previously proposed in Albuquerque, drew sharp criticism from workers rights advocates.

And business groups as well as some Republicans argued that $9.25-an-hour would still be too high. The bill would also raise the hourly minimum wage for tipped employees such as waitresses to $3.70 from $2.13.

Disagreements surrounding the bill demonstrated the messy process of making good on what was a major part of the Democrats’ political agenda in last year’s elections but also seemed to help the prospects of a compromise bill emerging from the 60-day session.

The House Labor and Economic Development Committee voted 6-5 along party lines to advance the bill, sending it to the House Judiciary Committee.

Some Democrats on the committee expressed reservations, however, about the section that would prohibit cities, towns and counties from regulating how businesses schedule employees.

The section could stop local governments from adopting policies that would curb flexible scheduling by employers, a practice workers rights advocates argue leaves low-wage laborers with uncertainty about the number of hours they might work in a week.

“How do you make and keep to a family budget when you don’t know how many hours you will work?” Holly Beaumont, director of Interfaith Worker Justice New Mexico, asked the committee.

And some lawmakers raised concerns that the section would block local governments from requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave for employees.

Members of the Albuquerque city council have proposed such ordinances in the past and similar policies have become major causes for workers rights groups around the country that see local governments as holding the best hope for improving the pay and benefits of low-wage laborers.

Chairman Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, warned Democrats on the committee against opposing an increase in the minimum wage, even if it is through a bill that workers rights groups consider less than ideal.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” McCamley said. “To not give a 23 percent increase to our lowest paid employees would be tragic.”

Raising the minimum wage was a central campaign theme for Democratic candidates for the Legislature last year and this is just one of several such bills wending through the Legislature during this 60-day session. On the lower end, Senate Bill 321 would raise the statewide minimum wage to $9 per hour but would allow employers to pay staff in training $8 per hour for up to 60 days from the date they are hired. On the high end, House Bill 27, would hike the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Many Republicans have signaled that they will oppose any proposal to raise the minimum wage but a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez did not respond directly to a question Monday about her stance on the proposals and the executive director of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce has said she is open to negotiating a small increase, indicating some business groups could lend their support to a compromise bill.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.