February 24, 2023

Paid Family and Medical Leave bill heads to Senate floor

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

A bill to provide employees with up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave passed the Senate Finance Committee by a 6 to 5 vote on Thursday.

The committee held a larger hearing on Thursday to hear from members of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Task Force, which worked out the bill over the last year, before the committee heard the bill. SB 11, sponsored by Senate Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, requests $36.5 million in nonrecurring funds from the general fund over the next two years. Stewart said that the program, once it is up and running by January 1, 2026, would begin paying back the state the money and it is expected to take six years.

The program would, if enacted, provide up to 12 weeks of paid time off for an employee who has a new child,  is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking or has a serious medical illness or to care for a family member with a serious medical illness. The Department of Workforce Solutions would administer the program. Employees would pay $5 for every $1,000 of income and employers with five or more employees would pay $4 for every $1,000 of income. Stewart said she thinks that, over time, the Department of Workforce Solutions would likely be able to lower the contributions.

Republicans in the committee expressed concern about small business owners in New Mexico and said this is a “mandate” and that it doesn’t need to be imposed.

State Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said his “real heartburn here, especially as a small business owner myself, is New Mexicans are still struggling.”

“It feels like they just had the snot beat out of them,” he said.

State Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said she feared a kind of reverse discrimination could happen if the bill is enacted; that employers would not hire women of child-bearing age because the employer would fear the woman would take up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

“By law, they [employers] shouldn’t discriminate. But if I’m applying for a job, I’m more of a liability for an employer, for women who’ve worked so hard, we’re creating a setback here. By law [the employer] shouldn’t do that. But clearly I’m more of a liability than Senator Sharer if I’m applying for the same job. Do you see how this creates a form of unintended discrimination?” she asked.

Stewart said “that’s what’s happening now.”

“Why do we have half of the women of workforce age not working? They have to stay home with babies. They don’t get help from employers. They fire people. They have to quit because they had a C-section and need 6 weeks off, not one or two. I think this helps women more than men actually. It helps businesses because it’s a way to keep employees and not have to pay. It’s an insurance program. It’s a way to keep employees coming back, keep their job and they want to come back because they’re not getting the whole of their salary, only 67 percent of it,” Stewart said.

The formula for benefits is 100 percent of minimum wage plus 67 percent of wages above minimum wage. So only minimum wage earners would earn their entire salary during the paid leave. Stewart said the employee requesting time off would have to show documentation to establish the request for the leave and the Secretary of Workforce Solutions can impose fines on anyone who tries to commit fraudulent claims.

Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Sarita Nair said her department supported the bill but said the worst case scenario would be an “unfunded mandate” by the Legislature.

State Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, was the sole Democrat to vote against the bill, although he voted against a motion to table the bill. He said that he opposed the bill because the Fiscal Impact Report questions “the solvency of the fund.”

“We need to fix that,” he said.

Stewart said the FIR is “wrong.”

“It used an inaccurate study,” she said.

Stewart introduced several amendments at the beginning of the hearing which, she said, were based on recent meetings with the business community. A couple of the amendments cleaned up language to add a definition for Indian tribes and ensure consistency of that throughout the bill. Another amendment removed a waiver for businesses that have an equal program to the 12 weeks of paid leave to a waiver for businesses that offer a substantially similar program to the 12 weeks of paid leave. She also changed the minimum amount of time an employee can take from four hours to eight. And upon completion of an intermittent leave claim, both the Department of Workforce Solutions and the employer would receive a finding and an ending on the claim, she said.

The amendments passed by a 7-4 party line vote.

The bill heads to the Senate floor next.

Updated: The vote on the amendments was 7-4, not 5-4.