Brewery owner touts benefits of paid sick leave: lower turnover, happier workers

Paid sick leave goes into effect next summer for New Mexico workers

By: - October 13, 2021 5:00 am
Behind the bar at Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque

Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque began offering paid sick leave to its employees in 2015. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Tamara Dickinson, of Clovis, has been in the restaurant industry for more than two decades. Low pay and no paid sick leave are a given, she says.

But in 2011, she left her job at a bar in Rio Rancho for better pay — $6 an hour, plus tips — at the Star Trek-themed Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque. A few years later, in 2015, the restaurant added paid time off. She said the benefit made her feel taken care of and happy to work there.

“Sometimes restaurant workers kind of get a bad rap, that you’re not as important or you’re kind of at the bottom of the food chain, like worker-wise, you know. People treat you a little differently,” Dickinson said. Getting paid sick leave made her feel a little more important, she said.

Ken Carson, owner of Nexus, said it has about 55 employees across two locations, and they all accrue paid time off whether they are part- or full-time employees. As of this August, everyone was at a minimum wage of $15 per hour, he said. That is well above the local minimum wage in Albuquerque, which rose to $10.50 per hour on Jan. 1.

As many as 22% of workers in the U.S. do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. New Mexico has fewer workers protected by paid sick leave than any other, with about 50% of workers here working without it, according to New Mexico Voices for Children.

That will all change in New Mexico next summer when the state Healthy Workplaces Act goes into effect. It requires all employers to provide workers with up to 64 hours of paid sick leave per year, accrued according to how many hours they work.

Workers’ rights advocates in the state have fought for paid sick leave on the local level for years, but the pandemic made it clear to more policymakers that paid sick leave is necessary to keep workers safe. Research shows that paid sick leave reduces the number of workers who go into work while ill.

Before the pandemic, Iman Andrade, a cashier in Albuquerque, was canvassing neighborhoods trying to make paid sick leave a reality alongside other members of Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLE), a multi-issue organization that uses grassroots organizing to build independent political power and affect policy change.

OLE and many other local groups started organizing around paid sick leave in 2015 under a campaign called Fair Work Week, which sought to enact an Albuquerque ordinance to provide earned sick days, more full-time opportunities, a right to rest and predictable scheduling for workers in the city.

By having these benefits, I do think that we stabilize our workforce. I don't have as heavy turnover. So I don't have to train as much. And I'm saving money in other ways.

– Ken Carson, owner Nexus Brewery

Then-Mayor Richard Berry vetoed the bill without due process and before any public hearings, said OLE Executive Director Andrea Serrano.

OLE then tried to hold a referendum to place a paid sick leave ordinance in the city onto the ballot in 2016, Serrano said, but the Bernalillo County Commission pushed it to 2017, and the measure was defeated by about 700 votes. Later, the Bernalillo County Clerk reported that more than 6,000 voters in that election did not turn over their ballots to see the referendum question on the back.

Carson of Nexus Brewery publicly supported it and helped work on its language as a member of OLE. But a large coalition of industry groups opposed it, including the New Mexico Restaurant Association, various chambers of commerce, the Realtors Association and others hired lobbyists who arrived at every hearing on the proposal, Serrano said.

Carson said he told opponents at the time that the cost of providing paid sick leave wasn’t as high as they thought it would be, and some of the arguments made against the ordinance inflated the numbers.

Cooks prepare a meal in the kitchen of Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque
Nexus Brewery owner Ken Carson says the Albuquerque restaurant’s turnover is lower than most in the industry because of the benefits he provides. Eddy, in foreground, has been a cook at the brewery for 10 years. His colleague Robert has been there more than five. Neither wanted to provide their last names. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

“The impact is so much more positive than negative, and I think that folks fear the unknown,” Serrano said. “But there are also plenty of businesses who already provide the benefit of sick leave. And they’re thriving, and not just large businesses, but we’re talking small, locally-owned businesses who already provide paid sick leave who support this ordinance, and their businesses are thriving.”

Organizing around the issue changed with the pandemic, Andrade said, to virtually speaking with lawmakers and workers. Activists seized on the pandemic to drive home the message that they needed to make workplaces more safe for workers and customers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers also ran their own paid sick leave bill in 2021. Sponsored by Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, that bill was combined with the one pushed for in part by OLE and sponsored by Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces.

The influence of lobbyists was somewhat blunted during the 2021 session, Serrano said, because people who otherwise would not be able to drive all the way to Santa Fe to testify for or against legislation could more easily testify via Zoom.

“We had people who were calling in from their break room at a grocery store and so that really changed the tone of this campaign,” Serrano said.

Strongest paid sick leaves in U.S.

The Legislature passed the bill in the final hour before the session ended, Serrano said. She said it is one of the strongest paid sick leave laws in the U.S.

For every 30 hours they work, workers will accrue one hour of paid sick leave under the new law. Employers can provide all 64 hours at the beginning of the year or go beyond the law’s minimum and give them more than 64 hours of paid sick leave.

When the law actually comes into effect in July 2022, Carson said he wants to increase the rate at which the paid leave accrues for his employees. He considers the state law to be a minimum and he wants his company policy to be above and beyond it.

The law also prohibits employers from requiring workers to search for and find a replacement to cover their shift if they are out sick.

Dickinson said the paid sick leave has affected turnover at Nexus and, along with other benefits like vision and retirement, helps keep workers.

“As a server, you’re going to make your money for that day, and then you go home. There’s not really an investment in the actual company,”  she said. “Whereas I feel like here with Nexus, it’s more about being a part of the company, more than just coming in and making your money and going home. There’s more to it.”

Nexus Brewery
All workers at Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque earn $15 an hour and receive paid sick leave. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Dickinson said she doesn’t see why all companies shouldn’t offer paid sick leave.

“Really, in the end, I think overall you’re going to see you’re going to have happier employees. You’re going to have better productivity and people that stay a lot longer,” she said.

Turnover is inherent to the restaurant business, Carson said, so the only people who end up using the sick leave are people who stay with the company for a long time. The average tenure for a worker is six months to a year, he said.

“But those are the ones I want to reward, because they stay with me for a while and theoretically, I must like ’em,” he said. Those who work for a season or a few weeks don’t accrue that much leave, and don’t get around to taking it, he said.

Carson said there has been turnover during the pandemic but attributes that to other businesses raising their wages and, like Dickinson, says the paid leave policy makes a difference.

“By having these benefits, I do think that we stabilize our workforce. I don’t have as heavy turnover,” Carson said. “So I don’t have to train as much. And I’m saving money in other ways through having a stable workforce.”

Less turnover also improves the quality of the food, he said, because more experienced workers have made the same dishes for years,

Serrano said workers also deserve the dignity of being able to stay home when they are sick. She said paid sick leave is an issue of public health.

Andrade interacts with at least 100 members of the public during a shift at her food service job. She said having paid sick leave makes a huge difference because it’s impossible to know if going to work while ill could get her coworkers sick as well, with COVID, the flu or any other illness. She said she no longer has to make a decision between paying rent or not going to work.

“Being able to have that peace of mind of being able to take a day off to care for yourself, to care for a loved one, I think that that can have nothing but positive change for our state,” Serrano said. “The credit goes to workers for passing that bill, to organizers and to our legislative allies and the governor for supporting it, and we’re going to be stronger for it.”

What can sick leave cover?

Workers will be able to call in and use their paid sick leave for any of the following reasons:

  • Mental or physical illness, injury or a health condition
  • Medical diagnosis, care, or treatment of a mental or physical illness, injury, or health condition 
  • Preventive medical care, 
  • To care for a family member relating to any of the above conditions.
  • For meetings at a child’s school or place of care related to the child’s health or disability.
  • For absence necessary due to domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking suffered by the worker or a family member as long as the leave is for the worker to get medical, psychological treatment or other counseling, relocate, prepare for or participate in legal proceedings, or to obtain services. 
  • To assist a family member of the worker with any of the activities set forth in the law related to abuse, assault and stalking.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.