The sick leave law is out of balance

The American workplace is undergoing a revolution.

The workplace is not a place simply to do a job and receive a paycheck. If that wasn’t clear before, it has been made abundantly clear in the last year.

Some of the issues have been brewing for decades.  In this year’s legislature, they exploded.

What happens to workers when a business is forced to close due to circumstances beyond the owner’s control?

What happens when a worker gets sick? Who pays for the worker’s time off?

Should workers be answerable to their employers for what they do outside work time if their activities pose risks for sickness or injury?

What happens when the schools close and parents must stay home with their children?

Should employers have continuing obligations to workers whose jobs are temporary or who work only for a few days?  Should employers continue to be obligated to a worker fired for poor performance, drug use, stealing, etc.? How can an employer close the books completely on a terminated employment relationship?

At what level should small employers be exempt from requirements?

New Mexico lawmakers tackled some of these issues in this year’s session.

Legislators introduced a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, one requiring paid family and medical leave (unpaid leave is already federal law), and one that would override existing minimum wage increases with a larger increase. I previously wrote about the bill that would have blown holes in the workers’ compensation system in a misguided attempt to help workers who contracted COVID-19.

Some legislators might have been prepared to pass all of them, even though the state is not yet fully reopened and nowhere near recovered from the effects of the pandemic business closures.

Every one of these bills addressed a genuine need. Fortunately, only one of them passed.  Unfortunately, it was the sick leave bill.  (At this writing, the bill has not been signed or vetoed by the governor.)

This bill, House Bill 20, is unbalanced and poorly drafted.

The bill appears to have been written by somebody who never met a trustworthy employer or a dishonest worker.  Some of the language looked familiar; it was similar to the local bill defeated a few years ago in Albuquerque.

As some readers know, I look at work-related legislation from the workers’ compensation perspective.  The workers’ compensation system contains numerous tradeoffs between the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers.  HB 20 contains no such tradeoffs.

The bill contains a detailed list of situations – not just personal illness —  for which an employee can use sick leave. It describes employer recordkeeping requirements. It details how to penalize an employer for noncompliance. There is nothing about penalizing a worker.

The bill was amended multiple times, so some problematic features have been ironed out, but it’s still too one-sided.  An amendment introduced near the end of the session postpones implementation until July 1, 2022.

The issues legislators missed may be just as important as the ones they tried to address.

As a society, we have to figure out these issues.  If we want to live in a more humane and less tense world, we’ll have to start paying living wages so that families do not spend their lives worrying about the next paycheck.

We’re going to have to respect the complicated roles of employers, including small businesses and nonprofits. We’re going to have to figure out how to pay for all these changes. We’re going to have to do this with employer and worker advocates together at the same table, even if it’s a  Zoom meeting.

Starting that process should provide a robust agenda for a few interim legislative committees.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2021

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