All workers at Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque earn $15 an hour and received paid sick leave before the new law took effect. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
Lucila Lozoya is a child care worker and mother of three. When there was a COVID surge at her workplace, her boss did not have the best response, she said, which caused more positive cases.
“During this time, our employer never gave us federal paid sick leave, making decisions about our health and feeding my family even more difficult,” she said. “Finally, I decided not to go back to work because of the multiple cases there.”
She needed the time off to get surgery to treat her cancer.
“Never in my life had I gone through such difficult and extreme financial situations,” Lozoya said. “We almost lost everything.”
The experience made Lozoya realize that paid sick leave is a human right.
“I am very proud of being part of the essential workers that have been at the front of this pandemic and that we continue organizing to improve our working conditions,” Lozoya said.
She is also community leader with El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos.
She said Burqueño families have been fighting to get paid sick leave since 2015. The pandemic impacted many low-income, working families like hers, Lozoya said, especially when it came to health and financial stability.
Lozoya was speaking at a virtual news conference celebrating New Mexico’s statewide sick leave law that applies to all private employers called the Healthy Workplaces Act, which went into effect Friday.
She was joined by other workers, organizers and state lawmakers including Rep. Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos) who carried the bill through the Legislature in 2021 before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it.
The new law 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.
The movement that brought paid sick leave to New Mexico was led by workers, said Lan Sena, policy director at the Center for Civic Policy and a former Albuquerque city councilor.
“We are happy that this finally has been turned into reality and that everybody — all the workers in New Mexico, independent of what industry they work in — will be covered,” Lozoya said.
People seeking work don’t always have protections like paid sick leave, “especially as COVID is still roaming,” Sena said. Nearly all residents of the United States were in areas of high or substantial COVID transmission this week, according to CDC data.
Is New Mexico prepared to enforce the law?
It remains to be seen how many bosses will follow the law, and how many of those who don’t will become the subject of complaints filed either with the state Department of Workforce Solutions or in civil courts across the state.
As of June 22, the department’s Labor Relations Division had nine full-time labor law investigators, with seven based in Albuquerque and two in Las Cruces, a DWS spokesperson said.
It also has three administrative assistants, one wage and hour investigator supervisor, one business operations specialist and one mediator who handle allegations of labor law violations.
That is two fewer full-time investigators than what they had in October 2021, when the department said it had 11 investigators.
The department asked lawmakers for $893,444 to pay for five new investigator positions but received only $735,000, department spokesperson Stacy Johnston said. The money will help pay for more five labor law investigators, one staff attorney, one paralegal, one administrative assistant, one technical support analyst and one systems analyst.
N.M. Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) said the department is “very organized.”
“I think they’re ready — and even if they’re not, we’re going forward,” Stewart said. Most New Mexico state agencies struggle during the pandemic, she added.
She pointed to the department-produced poster that tells workers what their rights are that is now required to be posted by employers in the workplace.
“We certainly increased their budget for this specifically,” Stewart said. “We will continue to look at this, and adjust the budget upwards for that department, if they need more. They’re not shy about telling us when they need more workers.”
As of Thursday, the department had not filled or advertised for the new positions funded by the Legislature. The positions will be advertised starting Friday, the beginning of the new fiscal year, the spokesperson said.
Essential workers more likely to catch, die from COVID
The racist effects of the pandemic won’t all be solved with paid sick leave, Sena said, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Research shows that paid sick leave reduces the number of workers who go into work while ill.
Low-income, Black and Brown Americans lost more work than others during COVID surges, according to a new analysis of Census data between August 2020 and June 2022 by Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, and Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
The analysis, published on Tuesday, found that families earning less than $50,000 in 2019 were 12 times more likely to report missing seven days of work due to COVID-19 than those earning at least $200,000.
Hispanic and Black people were more than twice as likely to report missing work due to COVID symptoms as white or Asian Americans, the analysis found. This is consistent with other data showing that Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people are more likely to contract coronavirus and die of COVID, the analysts wrote.
They also found that low-income people were at a higher risk of being exposed to coronavirus even when they accounted for vaccination status.
The disproportionate loss of work was consistent with high exposure to the virus through work, household crowding and community.
Other studies have found that when COVID disrupts a worker’s income and schedule, they not only suffer from short- and long-term health effects of the disease but also do not have enough food to eat, especially when there is no paid sick leave available to them.
A lack of food and housing can affect people’s entire lives and make it even harder for low-income communities to move out of poverty, according to the analysis, and this inequality spills over into the rest of the economy.
“Lower income workers are much less likely to have paid sick leave, which would offer material help to their families during times of lost income, even though they are the ones who need it most,” the analysts wrote, which raises the risk of poor health and poverty.
The researchers recommended routine, direct vaccine delivery to low-income neighborhoods and workplaces as a way to achieve more equitable vaccination rates and boosting. They conclude that we must expand our definition of who is at “high-risk” of severe illness if infected with coronavirus to include Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and low-income Americans.
Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) agreed that policymakers should consider the idea.
“When it comes to policy, I know it’s a lot harder to have this conversation in terms of expanding definitions, but I certainly think that it’s valid to consider those options moving forward, not necessarily just for COVID, but for other public health issues,” Rubio said.
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