February 19, 2020

Pregnant worker protection bill on its way to Guv’s desk after scare on Senate floor

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New Mexico State Senate.

A bill protecting pregnant workers nearly died on the Senate floor Tuesday night when a Democrat tried to introduce an amendment viewed as “unfriendly.” However, the Senate defeated the amendment and the bill itself passed unanimously.

HB 25 seeks to protect pregnant workers and new moms in the workplace by amending the state Human Rights Act to include those employees. This would enable pregnant people and new moms to seek mitigation under the state’s Human Rights Commission if they feel they have been discriminated against if an employer refuses “unreasonable accommodations.”

An amendment that Senator Joseph Candelaria, a Democrat from Albuquerque, tried to attach to the bill took issue with the idea that pregnant workers and new moms belong under the Human Rights Act. Candelaria, who is openly gay, said the bill created a “new suspect class of people.”  He did not want the Human Rights Act to be amended.

He said the bill would “erode decades of civil rights litigation and protections” reserved for immutable aspects of a person such as sexual orientation.

Bill cosponsor Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerillos, called the amendment “unfriendly” to the bill.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said pregnant people have been included under the Human Rights Act since 1998. But under current Human Rights Act language, pregnancy is considered a disability.

“Pregnancy is not a disability,” Ivey-Soto said.

Some supporters of the bill worried that Candelaria’s amendment could kill the bill on the Senate floor if his amendment passed. The bill has already passed the House and if it were amended, it would need to go back to the House for concurrence. If the House was unable to concur with the changes, or the Senate failed to pull back its changes, before the end of the session, the bill would be dead.

Candelaria cautioned his colleagues and called the process of passing bills “dysfunctional.”

“We can say pregnancy is not a disability but we don’t have to open up the Human Rights Act,” Candelaria said. “We have an obligation to get it right and craft the best bill not get one through in the next 20 hours.”

The session ends Thursday at noon. 

Antoinette Sedilla-Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said she opposed the amendment but said she is sensitive to the LGBTQ communities.

But at least one Republican agreed with Sen. Candelaria. Sen. Gregory Baca, of Belen, called Candelaria’s amendment “an improvement.”

“This is a very eloquent way of putting in protections for women,” Baca said.

Under Candelaria’s amendment, pregnant people and new moms would go to state district court and file a claim under tort law, which in civil law is litigating for loss or harm.

When the bill was on the House floor earlier this month, bill cosponsor Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said she’d worked with the New Mexico Hospitality Association and New Mexico Counties on the bill to make it an amendment to the Human Rights Act. That way, if workers feel they have been discriminated against, they will have to bring a claim to the state’s Human Rights Commission before going to court.

Policy advocates have been working on this bill since 2015, said Ellie Rushforth, a reproductive rights attorney with ACLU New Mexico. This year it has received broad support. New Mexico Hospitality Association opposed the bill in the past.

An earlier version of the bill made it through the Legislature in 2018 but Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it. Last year, the bill failed to pass before the end of the 60-day session.

Candelaria’s amendment failed by a close vote of 22 to 19.

Under the bill, pregnant workers and new moms can ask for “reasonable accommodations” that do not cause an employer “undue hardship.” Reasonable accommodations are things such as a stool at a workstation, water, bathroom breaks, reprieve from heavy lifting and the ability to take time off for prenatal appointments, say backers of the bill.

Supporters of the bill were excited to see the bill pass. Next it goes to the governor’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law.

Rushforth said pregnancy and childbirth are human rights.

“They should be protected as such,” she said.

Charlene Bencomo, executive director of reproductive rights organization Bold Futures, said it felt like a “win.”

“Our decision makers stood up for pregnant workers,” she said.

Marianna Anaya, communications director ProgressNow New Mexico*, issued a statement after the vote saying she was disappointed Candelaria pitted LGBTQ communities against pregnant people.

“As a Chicana lesbian, I understand that my rights as a person of color, as a member of the LGBTQ community and as a woman would not be eroded by having additional rights covered under the Human Rights Act, should I choose to become pregnant. Unfortunately, this is a debate we’ve had throughout history- when one group of people become afraid that their rights will be eroded when another group of people are included. We know from our hard-fought battles for equal protection that it’s just not the case and that many of us live at the intersections of these identities,” she wrote. 

* ProgressNow New Mexico helps find funding for NM Political Report. No one at ProgressNow NM has any say in editorial decisions by NM Political Report, including the decision to report on this issue. 

Correction: This story said the bill was HB 21. It is actually HB 25.