Paid family medical leave clears New Mexico Senate

Debate echoed same concerns from the last session, but bill ultimately received more support

By: - February 9, 2024 11:57 pm

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, talks with Sen. Maj. Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, on the Senate Floor, Friday, February 9, 2024. Stewart later presented Senate Bill 3, the Paid Family Medical Leave Act, on the Senate Floor. (Photo by Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)

After nearly five hours of debate from New Mexico Republican opponents, the Senate version of the paid family medical leave bill passed the Senate floor just before 11 p.m. Friday night.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 3 in a 25-15 vote. Its counterpart in the other chamber, House Bill 6, awaits its second committee hearing in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, where the proposal died last session.

Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) was the only Democrat who voted against the bill Friday night.

Senate Bill 3 sets up a fund administered by the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions for employers and employees to pay into, that could eventually pay employees for a maximum of 12 weeks while they’re on leave for their own medical needs or that of a family member. 

Before it gets to that point the bill will allow nine weeks for an individual’s medical leave. During that time, the state will study how the program is doing before it makes a decision to implement the 12-week leave mandate. If signed into law, New Mexicans who need family leave will start with up to 12-weeks guaranteed during that period.

“It’s an insurance program for all those things that happen to us whether we like it or not,” said bill sponsor Senate Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque).

Supporters of the bill say the fund needs $36 million in startup costs to develop.

Eligible employees would pay $272 a year into the fund through payroll deductions, and employers would pay $218 per mean wage employee per year to fund the program.

The legislation returned this year after sponsors said they worked with business owners to address concerns about potential harms to small businesses.

The 2024 bill promises protections for employers through measures like capping contribution increases, delaying implementation and employee eligibility requirements. 

The Senate proposal also creates a temporary advisory committee with representation from a variety of organizations including those that work with small businesses, medical groups, women and the elderly. 

The committee would be responsible for creating rules for how the fund will operate. It’s also responsible for creating educational materials for employers and employees.

Two amendments presented on the Senate floor Friday night by Stewart and Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) made additional changes to the makeup of the temporary advisory committee and employee eligibility, including eliminating certain types of leave by doubling the days an employee would have to work to be eligible for leave from 90 to 180 working days.

Both amendments were approved.

Still, the debate echoed previous arguments that stalled the bill last session.

“If you want to beat up the big box stores, have at it. Let’s bring back the small store, I’m good with that,” said Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington). “But this isn’t beating up the big box store, it’s beating up Main Street.”

Stewart said in a previous debate that 66% of small businesses wouldn’t have to pay into the fund, as the bill narrowly escaped the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 3 with a vote of 6-5.

Opponents of the bill expressed concern that there’s not enough safeguards in place to protect businesses from lawsuits and being squeezed by fund contributions, calling the bill in its current form “confusing” for business owners.

“I know in my heart and the emails that I get, the many concerns I have from my employers that this is a tough transition that this is going to make,” Sen. Pat Woods (R-Broadview) said. “We’re trying to get employers to grow in our state and prosper in our state … what my employers are telling me is that if this bill passes they’re going to have to remove the benefits they give their employees already.”

A survey by the Small Business Majority found that 85% of small business owners support a state-run paid family and medical leave insurance program. That same survey found that 61% of small businesses believed paid family medical leave made them more competitive with larger companies that offer better benefit packages to employees.

Stewart told lawmakers the state was committed to making the transition “as easy as possible” for employers. 

“We’re taking our time with this,” Stewart said. “We’re going to have a robust interim rulemaking. We want businesses to feel good about this. We want it easy for them.”

The application period for leave is also deferred until Jan. 1, 2027, Stewart said.

Sharer called the bill “flawed” and said it would “break up the business family” because the government would be able to back up an employee who wanted to take leave and had a conflict, instead of allowing the issue to be resolved between an employee and their employer. 

He also raised concern about opening up a potential for fraud.

Stewart pointed out that there is nothing in the bill language that compels an employee to take leave or bars either party from working out leave amongst themselves. 

She said the bill was designed to help both workers and employers because there is a high threshold for obtaining leave, such as requiring an application and multiple sources of support for an employee’s claim. It also helps employees get back to work faster and allows employers to offset costs by hiring temporary workers to fill in and not have to pay for someone’s leave.

“It’s a high bar to get medical leave,” Stewart said. “If you have employees that you just want to let off for a while, nothing says you can’t do that. The whole idea behind the changes we make today is to ease that employee-employer relationship. This does not require you to do things different with your employees. It’s really just for these situations where people cannot work.”

The National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit working on fairness in the workplace, says there’s very few instances of fraud and many of the few suspicions of fraud have not been proven.

Stewart said nearly half of women in New Mexico were not in the workforce, and that this bill would bring mothers, family caregivers and people with chronic health conditions  back into the workforce

She cited the U.S. Department of Labor which states that New Mexico would experience an expansion of the labor force by 47,000 workers with paid family medical leave enacted. Stewart told lawmakers that a paid family medical leave program would ensure families in need had resources during difficult times.

New Mexico had the fourth highest poverty rate last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is also among the states with the highest Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program use in the country. It ranks 50th in child welfare.

“We’re talking human dignity and social justice. Because right now these workers are just fired or they lose their jobs,” Stewart said. “I believe this will answer a lot of the issues that are economically disadvantaging New Mexico.”

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Megan Taros
Megan Taros

Megan Taros is a freelance reporter for Source NM. She is born and raised in the harbor area of Los Angeles where she began her career covering higher education and local government. She previously launched the South Phoenix beat at the Arizona Republic where she covered race and equity in one of the largest communities of color in the state. She also launched the Latino affairs beat at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she covered racial and economic inequality in Queens, New York.

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