November 30, 2020

Bill to introduce paid sick leave is timely, say advocates

Albuquerque resident Iman Andrade got worried when the pandemic began in mid-March.

She delivered pizzas for a living earlier this year and the staff making and delivering the pizzas make minimum wage. They came in sick because they had to, she said.

“My experience as a worker, as a driver, you don’t get paid enough to get to call into work sick. In the middle of the pandemic, it’s dangerous. The virus is in the air for hours and anybody could be sick with it,” she said.

Because of that, Andrade quit the pizza delivery business and found another job. She is now involved with OLÉ, a New Mexico nonprofit that advocates for family policies, as a volunteer because she wants to speak out about her experience.

The U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world that lacks a national policy for paid sick leave, Miles Tokunow, an OLÉ community organizer, said.

The paid sick leave bill would mandate that all companies, regardless of size, provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. The minimum amount of time accrued will be 56 hours in a year and the time can be rolled over. Companies that have more generous time off packages for their employees will not be affected by the bill.

The bill, if made into law, will apply to every employee who has less than 56 hours a year for time off in the event of illness, regardless of whether that employee is management or part-time.

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, is sponsoring the bill. She said it has been many years in the making.

“COVID-19 has unveiled to us so many inequities,” Rubio said. “For so many workers going to work potentially sick, they’d rather risk being sick and exposing others so they don’t lose income. We should be having this conversation. What values are we representing when we’re allowing workers to operate in these conditions?”

Tukonow also said the pandemic has emphasized the need for such a bill.

“Paid sick leave is about the health of our community,” Tokunow said. “And during this pandemic, we can go so far as to say that paid sick leave saves lives.”

Andrade agrees. She said that during her time delivering pizzas, she saw a manager come to work sick and throw up in a back room.

“I’ve seen people come in with a fever and look like crap,” Andrade said. “People would recover faster and be more productive if they went home.”

There have been efforts to expand employees’ ability to take time off in the past but all have some restrictions or conditions.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham established, by executive order, that state employees can have up to 12 weeks off to care for a new child at the beginning of 2020.

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

The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) went into effect October 1. It allows federal employees up to 12 weeks of paid time off for a new child.

The U.S. Department of Labor allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they work for an employer with more than 50 employees. But experts have said that many can’t afford to do that and many New Mexico businesses have fewer than 50 employees.

Legislators tried to pass a similar bill, which would have created a state fund to enable workers to take time off for paid family medical leave, in the 2020 Legislature. But HB 16, sponsored by Democrat state Rep. Christine Chandler, of Las Alamos, didn’t make it out of committee.

Related: As coronavirus spreads, advocates say it shows why paid sick leave is needed

Tokunow said 51 percent of workers in the state lack access to any form of leave, whether sick leave or Paid Time Off (PTO).

“We know of folks who have not gotten tested for COVID-19 because they can’t take time off,” he said.

He also said the staff at OLÉ, which is involved in grassroots community organizing, has talked to residents who can’t take time off while waiting on the results of a COVID-19 test.

“They don’t have the luxury of being able to do that,” Tokunow said.

Lujan Grisham has said during her regular COVID-19 press conferences that one of the ways in which community spread of the virus is happening is because people go into work sick and they go into work after getting tested.

Related: Governor: New Mexico in ‘extreme crisis’ with COVID-19

A study conducted by the University of New Mexico Business and Economic Research in 2018 said that in the city of Albuquerque, 57 percent of businesses in the city opposed a mandated paid sick leave, believing that it would be too costly for the business.

But the study found that the administrative cost would be $339 per year for a business with a single employee; $297 per employee per year for a business with five workers and $245 per employee per year for a business with 10 workers.

“We think that is doable,” Tokunow said.

Another study, published by a medical journal called Health Affairs, looked at the number of COVID-19 cases in the spring. The federal government allowed employees to take two weeks off through the CARES Act if sick and the study found that there were fewer than 419 cases per day where workers were able to tap into the federal sick leave.

Once the pandemic is over, Rubio said such a law, if the bill is passed, will be important for both businesses and workers.

“This is such an added value for workers and businesses. They get to sustain their loyal workers and continue building a business around a community that is fruitful and thriving and it benefits the overall working culture,” she said.

Andrade sees the bill as common sense.

“I think no one should have to go into work sick to make a pizza or to make coffee. It’s ridiculous,” Andrade said.