January 6, 2020

Guv gives state employees paid family leave, some hope to take it further

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham official.

Some hope Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s new executive order giving state employees 12 weeks off to care for a new child is a harbinger for the passage of a bill that would bring that benefit – and more – to all New Mexico employees.

Lujan Grisham made her announcement earlier this week. Starting with the first day of 2020, all state employees are now eligible to take up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for a new child, whether a birth or an adoption. Leave must be taken within the first six months following the child’s arrival. If both parents work for the state, both parents are eligible for the leave. The program is currently estimated to cost the state a little less than $5 million annually.

The only other public institutions that offer similar time off for employees in New Mexico are the city of Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico, said Tracy McDaniel, policy advocate for Southwest Women’s Law Center.

Soon the federal government will start offering a similar perk. Starting on October 1, federal employees will be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or fostering of a child.  

McDaniel said that once that goes into effect, about 100,000 employees, or 12 percent of the New Mexico workforce, will be eligible to receive the benefit.

Lujan Grisham said through a statement that the order is part of her effort to reduce the state’s employee vacancy rate. 

Nora Meyers Sackett, Lujan Grisham’s press secretary, said there are 16,737 people who work for the state and there are a little more than 4,500 vacancies. But Meyers Sackett said the actual vacancy rate is lower because not all of those roughly 4,500 jobs are currently funded.

Meyers Sackett said this isn’t the first time Lujan Grisham has made the news for family friendly state employee policies. Late last year her office received a “Family Friendly” business award from Family Friendly New Mexico, a nonprofit group, for wellness and fitness policies, giving state workers a 0.4 percent raise and for ordering state agencies to offer alternative work schedules last year.

“The governor is committed to making state government a healthy workplace and an attractive place to work,” Meyers Sackett wrote in an email to NM Political Report.

Could the benefit spread to all New Mexico businesses?

Some are hoping that this new move by the governor is a harbinger of things to come.

State Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, is sponsoring a bill, HB 16, in the upcoming legislative session that would allow all New Mexicans the ability to take time off from work to care for a new child, as well as provide time off for an employee’s own medical needs or to care for a family member if it passes.

Chandler called the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act a “broad bill.”

“It includes every employer,” Chandler said. “Some employers can opt out if they have an equivalent program. But it’s paid family and medical leave for all employees.”

Chandler said this bill came out of a study initiated by the legislature in 2015 on the issue that found that paid family and medical leave creates a more productive work force and more employee loyalty to the employer.

McDaniel said passage of the bill is important because having such a benefit state-wide would reduce stress for families.

“Most in our state, and nationally, are one paycheck away from medical or mortgage payments so this gives protection people really need, especially when dealing with a new baby or a medical condition or a family member,” McDaniel said.

How it would work

HB 16 would provide time off not just for a new child, but also for medical leave, elder care or care of any family member who has medical issues. McDaniel said that if it passes, it would level the playing field for small businesses that have trouble offering generous leave packages to prospective employees because the margins are too slim. She said there are large companies in New Mexico that can offer generous leave benefit packages and that can be a recruitment tool.

The proposed bill would, if passed, create an insurance pool administered by the state’s Department of WorkForce Solutions. The insurance pool would start with $1 million, which would come out of the state’s general fund. But beyond that, employees would pay a 0.5 percent tax per paycheck into the pool. Employers would pay a 0.4 percent tax on each employee. The employer’s tax would pay for the administration of the fund. The employee’s tax would go into the insurance pool itself, McDaniel said.

When an employee would need time off to care for a new child, or a family member or to take care of a serious medical condition, then that employee would be able to still receive a regular salary from the insurance pool. The employer would then be able to hire temporary replacement if needed, McDaniel said.

All employees would be eligible for up to 12 weeks off.

McDaniel said another benefit is that someone who is self-employed could pay the full 0.9 percent tax and still get the benefit.

“It protects small businesses,” McDaniel said.

Whether the bill will even be discussed this year is uncertain.. Meyers Sackett said Lujan Grisham’s priority list is still developing and her office is still evaluating pre-filed legislation. In a 30-day session, as occurs every even-numbered year, the Legislature can only discuss budget items and those put on the “call” by the governor.

Chandler introduced a similar bill in the 2019 legislature but it died in committee.

But Terrelene Massey, executive director of Southwest Women’s Law Center, said Lujan Grisham’s move gives her hope.

“It’s a great start,” Massey said.