State agency will need funding and investigators to enforce paid sick leave law

The Healthy Workplaces Act takes effect summer 2022, and DWS will be charged with making sure businesses comply

By: - October 15, 2021 7:05 am
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 sick leave and health care 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. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

With a new statewide paid sick leave law set to go into effect next summer, the agency charged with enforcing it will need more funding to make the law actually benefit workers across New Mexico.

In the coming months, the Labor Relations Division of the state Department of Workforce Solutions will be preparing for when the Healthy Workplaces Act goes into effect on July 1, 2022.

Key to enforcing the new law will be making sure the department has enough staff to do the job, said Andrea Serrano, executive director of the Organizers in the Land of Enchantment. 

“What that means is that DWS has to be fully funded,” Serrano said. “The state Legislature has to ensure that when it goes through appropriations, that DWS has the funding that they need. They’re going to need investigators.”

Serrano, OLÉ and many other local organizations lobbied state legislators to pass the law. 

The division’s Wage & Hour Bureau is responsible for enforcing the Healthy Workplaces Act along with other labor laws like the Public Works Minimum Wage Act and the Apprenticeship and Training Act, a DWS spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Wednesday, Oct. 13. DWS is in the process of writing appropriate rules for enforcement of the new law.

In the upcoming legislative session, DWS plans to request more than $1.8 million to help pay for more five labor law investigators, one staff attorney, one paralegal, one administrative assistant, one technical support analyst and one systems analyst, according to a formal request filed Sept. 1 by DWS Acting Cabinet Secretary Ricky Serna.

DWS’ $14 million annual budget is the same as the previous year, except for the money they’re asking for specifically to enforce the Healthy Workplace Act, according to the request.

Resources for wage theft

Complaints of alleged violations of labor law in New Mexico can be filed in writing and by telephone to the Department of Workforce Solutions. Any employee who has not been paid their earned wages may file a wage claim.

Before a claim can be accepted, the employee must have made a recent demand for payment from the employer. If the employer denies payment or does not pay as promised, the employee may then file a claim. 

Claims for workers under bargaining agreements may be accepted if the union has exhausted all grievance procedures and the Wage & Hour Office receives a letter from the union requesting assistance.

The Wage & Hour Offices has three locations:

Albuquerque: 121 Tijeras NE, Suite 3000  •  (505) 841-4400 

Las Cruces: 226 S. Alameda Blvd.  •  (575) 524-6195

Santa Fe: 1596 Pacheco Street, Suite 103  •  (505) 827-6817

For more, find the Wage & Hour Office’s info page online.

The Wage & Hour Bureau already handles allegations of wage theft and will follow similar procedures for workers who want to file a complaint under the Healthy Workplaces Act, said the spokesperson, who declined to be named.

“A robust and successful complaint system is in place to investigate allegations of wage theft,” they said. “The bureau collects information to make case determinations and facilitates settlement / mediation meetings, issues administrative decisions, collects unpaid or underpaid wages due, and prosecutes in court cases involving wage theft.”

The department currently employs 11 full-time labor law investigators, a full-time mediator, and other managerial and administrative support staff who handle allegations of labor law violations.

Sovereign Hager, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty legal director, agrees DWS needs the funding to enforce the law.

“Right now we need to come together to support the Department of Workforce Solutions in getting a strong appropriation to do the work they’ve laid out,” Hager said. “If this happens in the upcoming legislative session, DWS will have resources to ensure employers understand their obligations, and employees’ rights will be enforced.”

Ensuring the public is informed about what the act means for workers and businesses is also a priority.

But as of this writing, information about paid sick leave does not prominently appear on any part of the DWS website, with only cursory information appearing in some records buried multiple pages deep in the site. None of it is specific to implementation of the act. A search query of the site using the phrase “healthy workplaces act” on Thursday, Oct. 14, turned up no results.

Serrano said she thinks state officials need to put a lot of time into educating employers about the law. OLÉ and their partners will be doing public education with businesses.

 “One of the really hard parts about the opposition is that they use scare tactics,” Serrano said. “I’m not gonna mince words about it: they lie about the law. They lie about what the law entails. And unfortunately, there’s businesses who just sort of take them at face value.”

The division intends to develop and provide information on the notice, posting and information requirements for employers and employees covered under the act and is writing an educational presentation to help employers comply.

“All of the charges required by the Healthy Workplaces Act are currently in process with LRD,” they said. “Upon proper legislative and legal vetting, review, and approval, LRD will move forward with all reasonable means to involve and provide New Mexico employers and their employees with resources and information as required by the act.”

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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.