By Robert Nott/Santa Fe New Mexican
State Rep. Linda Serrato had one question for the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
“Is this the time for New Mexico to do paid family leave?” the Santa Fe Democrat asked.
She was disappointed with the response.
Two fellow House Democrats, Reps. Marian Matthews of Albuquerque and Patty Lundstrom of Gallup, joined the four Republicans on the committee in a 6-5 vote to table Senate Bill 11, the proposed Paid Family and Medical Leave Act.
With less than five days left in the legislative session, the move likely means the bill is dead.
Supporters of SB 11, which would have entitled many New Mexico workers to take up to 12 weeks of leave while receiving a part of their regular pay, have said it would benefit workers who give their all to a company and find they can’t get paid time off when dealing with an illness, the birth of a baby or a family member in need of care. Workers who have been victims of domestic violence also would have been eligible for the paid leave.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” said Serrato, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “But every significant step forward in New Mexico took a lot of bravery and took time. … It takes time.”
The committee on Friday had delayed a vote on the bill to give Serrato and Stewart time to work on an amendment to address some concerns. But the changes didn’t sway lawmakers who feared the measure’s potential effects on businesses.
“That table was a very sad thing for women of color who legislators have promised to protect,” said Allen Sánchez, president of the Catholic nonprofit CHI St. Joseph’s Children, in an interview after Monday’s vote.
His organization was part of a coalition backing the measure, with groups that serve senior citizens, nonprofits that address child welfare and employee advocates.
A roughly $36 million fund would have been created under SB 11 with contributions from employers and workers.
Employees wanting to take part in the benefit would have pay into the fund for at least six months.
The bill would exempt employers with fewer than five workers from participating in the program. Stewart told committee members that would eliminate 66% of all businesses in the state.
Several lawmakers on the committee raised concerns Friday when they first considered the bill.
Many small-business owners spoke against it at the time, arguing they now struggle to pay higher wages just to keep people on staff in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. They called the measure government overreach.
Some said they would probably have to close or relocate to Arizona or another state to stay in business if the proposed law took effect.
Lundstrom and Matthews said they could not support the bill because of the impact it would have, not just on businesses, but also on the communities that would suffer if businesses closed or moved away.
Lundstrom also expressed concern about the long-term solvency of the initial fund, saying it’s likely businesses would have to pay more to keep it afloat down the line.
Stewart and Serrato introduced an amendment Monday that addressed the concern by requiring both employers and employees to pay more into the fund, but Lundstrom said the measure “did not meet what my expectation was” in terms of ensuring the fund’s solvency.
Many workers who testified Friday spoke of being unable to take time off work to care for sick loved ones, recover from an illness or welcome a new baby. A bartender speaking in favor of the bill said he was able to spend just one day with his wife and newborn child after the baby’s birth before rushing back to work the next day.
A lack of enthusiasm for SB 11 on Friday suggested it might not make it across the finish line, even after the Senate approved it following contentious debate between Democrats who supported it and Republicans who opposed it.
Othiamba Umi, an advocacy director for AARP New Mexico, sounded a note of optimism after Monday’s hearing.
“We’ll be back next time,” he said. “We have a large coalition of support. It’s something that is really important to our families, caregivers. We’ll be back next year.”
Sánchez made a similar comment: “We will be back next year and every year until legislators fulfill their responsibility to protect women and infants,” he said.