The Southwest Women’s Law Center is holding its first of 11 town halls in Albuquerque this week to both discuss a proposed bill to provide paid family and medical leave that will be introduced in the 2024 legislature but also to ask the public to share stories about what this bill would mean to them if it becomes law.
The proposal has been introduced in the legislature since 2019 with the exception of the 2022 session. That year, legislators passed a memorial instead that established a task force to bring various stakeholders to the table to arrive at a bill that addressed competing interests. Legislators introduced the bill, which would enable employees to take up to 12 weeks of paid time off for a new child or for a major health event, again in the 2023 legislative session. The bill passed the Senate, b died in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee when a few Democrats sided with Republicans and voted against it in the final week of the session.
SWWLC policy advocate Tracy McDaniel told NM Political Report that the organization had been talking about using the strategy of holding town halls to talk to the public about the bill in an attempt to gain support to get it over the finish line for a few years. But between the COVID-19 pandemic and the work of the task force, this is the first time that holding town halls became feasible.
The town halls will be held around the state, in Las Vegas, Grants, Silver City, Espanola, Farmington, Santa Fe, Taos, Ruidoso and Las Cruces and will run until mid October.
McDaniel said the education portion of the town hall will be kept short because, mostly, SWWLC wants to hear from the public.
“Very few people have access to paid family and medical leave in the state and don’t think it’s something they could have. All of us have a story either personally or someone in our family who had to leave a job because of a health condition or welcoming a new child and had they had to stay home or because they had to care for the family member. Getting those stories is helpful and important,” she said.
She said that in addition to gathering stories from families, SWWLC is holding the town halls to combat misinformation that appears to be going around about what the bill would do.. McDaniel said she has heard business owners express worry that they would have to pay their employees during the 12 weeks the employee took time off for a serious medical condition or to care for a family member’s serious medical condition.
But, that is incorrect. Some employers and employees will pay into a fund that would be managed by the Department of Workforce Solutions. The fund would pay a portion of the employee’s salary, not by the business owner.
Another piece of misinformation McDaniel has heard is that people believe that the payments would be 4 to 5 percent of an employee’s salary. That is also incorrect. The payments into the fund would be a percentage of an employee’s salary so that the cost to employers would be about $4 for every $1,000 of wages while the cost for employees would be $5 for every $1,000 of wages.
“People think it’s much higher than that,” McDaniel said.
The 2023 version of the bill had some changes from previous versions to address concerns that came up in the 2022 task force. McDaniel said the 2024 version of the bill will look very similar to the 2023 bill. It will include the 2023 amendments and the concessions made to the business community after the task force worked on it.
That means that the 2024 bill will allow businesses with fewer than five employees to opt out of the program if they wish to. One of the repeated concerns about the bill was that it would be too much of a burden for small business owners in New Mexico.
That would exempt 66 percent of businesses in the state, McDaniel said.
Another concession to the business community was to require employees to work for 90 days before they could expect job protection during a leave of absence, McDaniel said. That, too, will remain in the 2024 bill.
Another concession was to require eight hours minimum for a leave of absence in order to reduce administrative burden. That, too, will remain in the bill as will extending the time an employer has to notify the Department of Workforce Solutions. If the bill passes, the employer would have up to 10 days.
The bill would also extend implementation for six months for employers to train and gain technical support to prepare for the change so they understand the law and the IT system that the state would utilize to process leave of absence requests. The program would not start until 2027 if the bill is enacted.
The 2024 bill will also allow self-employed individuals to opt in or choose not to participate; employers who have substantially similar programs already in place can also opt out.
Another amendment made to the bill in the 2023 legislature including some new language that would prevent an employee from working a side job while taking the 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave off, McDaniel said.
One argument Republicans made against the bill in the 2023 session was the worry that employees would not want to come back to work. But the bill would implement a formula for benefits so that 100 percent of minimum wage would be covered plus 67 percent of wages above minimum wage.
Amendments that were made during the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee included an annual cap on increases to the contribution rates to the fund, McDaniel said. She said advocates don’t anticipate that the Department of Workforce Solutions would find itself in a position to have to raise the percentages that both employer and employee would have to pay into the fund but because it became a concern by some legislators, that annual cap of one-tenth of wages will remain in the bill that will be introduced in 2024.
Another amendment was to add a small business owner to the implementation advisory committee that the Department of Workforce Solutions would create during the rulemaking process.
Updated to reflect that the town halls begin this week not next week.