A toddler recovers from RSV in a pediatric intensive care unit. If the proposal for paid family and medical leave in New Mexico becomes law, all parents in the state would be able to take time off to care for their children without losing income. (Photo by Jill Lehmann Photography / Getty Images)
When New Mexicans face the life circumstances that make it impossible for them to work, there’s no guarantee that their boss will keep paying them or that they can keep their job.
A proposal to change that — which lawmakers have been talking about for decades — will return in January in the upcoming legislative session in Santa Fe.
“It’s been in the works, studied and deliberated upon in New Mexico for 20 years now,” Tracy McDaniel told a panel of state lawmakers Monday.
The federal Family Medical Leave Act already protects a worker from losing their job while they are away, but that leave is unpaid, said McDaniel, policy advocate for the Southwest Women’s Law Center.
And most workers in New Mexico can’t even apply for federal leave anyway. The federal law only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees, McDaniel said, which is only 4% of all businesses in the state.
State Rep. Linda Serrato (D-Santa Fe) said the lack of protections affects new mothers, too.
“For years, we have just been expecting New Mexican parents, especially moms, to just piece together family care in those first three months of life and return to work within days of giving birth,” Serrato said at a meeting of the Legislature’s interim Economic Development and Policy Committee. “This is not sustainable, and this does not grow a healthy economy that we want to see in New Mexico that our workers and our small businesses deserve.”
How it works
The legislation they’re championing would allow a worker to take leave and still receive part of their income, McDaniel said. They could take up to 12 weeks of leave per year, she said.
For a worker making the state minimum wage of $11.50 per hour, they would still get 100% of the wages they would have made, McDaniel said. Anyone making more than that would receive 67% of the wages they would have made, she said.
Regardless of whether a worker has a full-time or part-time position, they would still get paid leave, said Suzan Reagan, senior program manager of the Data Bank at the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
A worker or an employer would apply to the N.M. Department of Workforce Solutions to make a claim to receive the money, Reagan said.
McDaniel added that someone would have to work for the company for 90 days before they would get job protection from the state under the proposal.
The program would complement New Mexico’s existing paid sick leave program, she said, in cases where a worker needs to take more extended periods of time away from work for health reasons — cancer, for example.
Data from other states
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have programs that allow workers to take paid leave to deal with domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, bereavement and active duty military service or deployment, McDaniel said.
If lawmakers approve this proposal for New Mexico, workers here could take leave for those reasons, too.
States that have paid family and medical leave programs saw significant health, social and economic benefits, she said.
Access to paid leave in the postpartum period immediately following childbirth, McDaniel said, is associated with fewer child hospitalizations, more vaccinations and breastfeeding, better parental mental health, and less use of public assistance and food benefits, McDaniel said.
Workers who have job-protected leave can stay on their employer’s health insurance plan, she argued, which lowers the use of Medicaid.
When people have family members taking care of them, they’re often able to leave hospitals more quickly, and the use of emergency rooms drops, McDaniel said. Fewer elderly people end up going into nursing homes, too, she added.
“When people take leave and manage health conditions earlier in a disease progression, they’re much less likely to need to take permanent disability later down the road,” McDaniel said.
States that had these programs at the beginning of the pandemic “responded better,” she said, relieving the strain on unemployment offices, so people who needed to use those systems were in less precarity and paid more quickly.
How it would be covered
The proposal would create a trust fund to be handled by the Department of Workforce Solutions, McDaniel said. It would be separate from the state’s General Fund.
The money would come from contributions by employers and workers. For every $1,000 in wages that a New Mexican worker earns, they would pay $5 into the fund to cover leave.
For example, a worker making the state minimum wage would pay $119.60 per year, McDaniel explained, and their boss would pay $95.16 per year.
The Department of Workforce Solutions estimates that it would cost the state $36.5 million in the first year to implement the program, with most of that money going to create the user interface for workers and employers to make claims.
The department estimates it would need $45 million in the second year to hire and train permanent program staff, develop the claim forms, and to educate workers and businesses.
Most businesses would not pay, but all workers would benefit
A task force created by the Legislature met between June and September creating recommendations for how the state could offer family and medical leave.
Among the recommendations: Businesses with five or fewer employees should not have to contribute to the trust fund, even though they could still use it.
“That exempts nearly seven out of 10 New Mexico businesses from contributing into the trust fund,” Serrato said.
The rest would be chipping in $4 for every $1,000 in wages they pay, McDaniel said.
Serrato said the trust fund “would actually pay for itself within the decade, and pay back what it took from our extra funds at this moment.”
If the Legislature passes a bill that adheres to this proposal and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs it into law, the Department of Workforce Solutions would begin hiring the staff to oversee the program and write rules for it between July 2023 and July 2024.
Businesses and workers would start contributing to the fund in January 2025, and then workers would start receiving the paid leave one year later.
That year of contributions before any payouts would ensure that the fund would have enough money to break even, McDaniel said.
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