Local employment rules are divisive and burdensome

The City of Albuquerque dodged a bullet recently when the voters rejected, by the narrowest of margins, an ordinance to require employers to provide sick leave.

Up the road, the local ordinance bug has hit Sandoval County, which is on the verge of enacting a right-to-work ordinance, with both civil and criminal penalties including jail time.

This ordinance was introduced by two county commissioners and therefore just needs approval by the commission itself, not by the voters. According to Bill Diven of the Sandoval Signpost, the commission has passed the ordinance once. Amendments were introduced at the Nov. 2 meeting, so it will have to be published and voted on again by the commission.

Diven said the sheriff’s office and district attorney objected to the law enforcement provision because they don’t have the resources, training or expertise to enforce employment law. One spokesperson called that provision an unfunded mandate.

The right-to-work argument has a long and tiresome history in New Mexico. I consider it a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of labor unions and weaken the worker protections that the labor movement spent a century developing.

The defeated Albuquerque sick leave ordinance was on the city election ballot based on a citizen initiative and petition drive. Most people who signed those petitions probably did not read entire seven-page ordinance. Petition signers, probably without knowing, supported a “retaliation” clause, which says in part:

“An employer shall not intimidate, retaliate, … or take or threaten any adverse action whatsoever against an employee because the employee has exercised rights protected under this ordinance … There shall be a rebuttable presumption of a violation … whenever an employer takes any adverse action against a person who, within 90 days, has exercised rights protected under this ordinance …”

In plain language, if an employee takes any sick leave, the employer cannot discipline that employee for any other reason for 90 days. Whatever the employee does, if the employer imposes any discipline, it is legally presumed the discipline was retaliation for the sick leave.

The employer can dispute that presumption, but if the employee complains to the city, the employer would have to pay penalties or engage in some kind of legal proceeding to prove there was no retaliation. And the city would have to enforce this provision: another unfunded mandate.

This would have been an open invitation for businesses to locate someplace else.

Now that the issue is front and center in the city, the City Council may try to draft a more reasonable sick leave ordinance.

Sick leave is good policy. But imposing burdensome mandates on small business is not. A better approach might be to adopt incentives, such as tax breaks, to reward businesses who treat their employees well.

There’s a bigger issue here than right-to-work or sick leave: the practice of bringing these divisive political issues to local government.

Cities and counties have traditionally been expected to focus on everyday community needs such as water, garbage, roads and police. That’s a big enough load to carry. We don’t need to turn them into political battlegrounds for issues that are already dividing us at the state and national levels. Nor is it helpful to expand the demands placed on them, stretch their budgets thinner due to new responsibilities, or turn New Mexico into a confusing patchwork of different regulations from county to county.

America is in a deeply traumatic time. Whichever side of the political divide you are on, you are feeling this. There are friends and neighbors you can’t talk to anymore, because of divisive politics.

So, should these arguments continue to be raised at the local level? I say no.

Bills were introduced in the legislature in both 2016 and 2017 to prohibit local governments from enacting their own legislation regarding private employment. That concept should be applied in a bipartisan way and considered again.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2017



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