January 28, 2020

A bill to protect pregnant workers passes first hurdle

A bill that advocates say protects pregnant workers passed unanimously through its first committee Tuesday with no opposition.

HB 25, called the Pregnant Worker Accommodation Bill, went before the House Labor, Veteran, Military Affairs Committee. This isn’t the first time House committee members have heard this bill. Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the bill in past sessions, but she said the bill introduced during the 2019 session went through negotiation with the Hospitality Association and New Mexico Counties, an association that represents all 33 counties, and that took ten days. It then died on the House floor. Another version of the bill passed the Legislature in the 2017 session but was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

The bill would require an employer with four or more employees to make “reasonable accommodations” for a pregnant worker or someone who has just given birth. The bill also prohibits an employer from requiring a pregnant employee to take time off if another reasonable accommodation can be provided.

Advocates say “reasonable accommodations” can include things such as extra bathroom breaks, reprieve from heavy lifting, light duty, time off to attend prenatal appointments, a stool to sit on and the ability to keep water handy.

Chasey told NM Political Report that the current bill is “trying to get employers to be accommodating to workers.”

“We’re not trying to be punitive,” she said.

A pregnant worker denied reasonable accommodation or who experiences discrimination due to pregnancy would file a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission, then could file a complaint in court after going through the Human Rights Commission.

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, gave an impassioned speech about how in 2020, “women are still having to go through this.”

Roybal Caballero said she began organizing women workers at an El Paso plant in the late 1960 and early 1970s and part of her efforts were about pregnant workers needing special accommodations. She said she told her former El Paso activist colleagues about HB 25.

“They said, ‘you mean to tell me you don’t have those protections in New Mexico?’ And I felt very embarrassed to say no,” Roybal Caballero said.

Advocates from 12 different organizations spoke on behalf of the bill, saying that the bill’s passage is important for both moms and for kids. Some, such as expert witness Tim White, an Albuquerque lawyer with Valdez & White Law Firm, made a point of saying he is a father and grandfather before adding that he is an attorney who handles discrimination lawsuits.

Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said the bill wasn’t getting much committee discussion because “we’ve all heard this before.”

Committee members  Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, and Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, both expressed concern about the Attorney General Office’s analysis of the bill. The AOG said that the bill “creates inconsistent language regarding accommodation as between pregnancy/childbirth and physical or mental handicap or serious medical condition.” The AGO also said in the bill’s Fiscal Impact Report that the bill “contains a confusing reference to voluntary leave…”

But both Lewis and Gallegos voted to approve the bill in its current form. Chasey, who along with Sen. Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, is supporting the bill, said she didn’t think they “need to change any language.”

The bill next goes to the House Judiciary Committee.