The lack of paid sick leave in the U.S. contributes to the spread of disease and emergency medical costs, according to the American Public Health Association. There are no federal laws about it, but some states and cities have passed their own. Advocates in Albuquerque gathered enough signatures to put the issue before voters in November.
Even though she’s worked for the same company since 1999, Veronica Serrano doesn’t have paid sick leave. "The choice is either to get paid or not get paid. And I’d rather pay my bills," she said.
She conducts water audits, and goes to people’s houses to figure out why their bills might be so high. She helps find indoor and outdoor leaks. She feels guilty when she shows up sick, she said, and tries to use a lot of hand sanitizer. "It keeps perpetuating sickness. No one ever really gets better because we’re so easily passing it around because people can’t stay home."
Sometimes when her daughter is sick, Serrano has to take her to school anyway, because as a single mom, she can’t afford to stay home from work. She’s like nearly 40 percent of Americans—most of them low-wage workers—who don’t get to call in sick and still get paid.
But pretty soon, Serrano will have no choice. She’s going in for surgery in a couple of days, and she’ll have to stay home for between four and eight weeks. She’s been doing the math on how long she’ll have before the water and power get turned off. "Because I know what I’m going to do is use all my money to pay my mortgage," Serrano said. "I can live without water if I have to. You know, I can live without lights if I have to. And I’m concerned that I could lose my house."
Under an ordinance that might go before Albuquerque voters in November, all workers in the city would accrue an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. But the measure is too long to fit on the ballot, and city and county officials will have to decide whether an abbreviated version can be printed instead.
Even though there’s no law in place yet, Kenneth Carson Jr. who owns Nexus Brewery already offers paid time off to his employees—including servers and cooks. "And so far, we’ve never had anybody abuse it. But everybody does use it," he said.
Nexus workers get between five and 15 paid days off, depending on how long they’ve worked there. Nexus also picks up half the tab for medical, dental and vision. "It’s just an expense that I just have to budget for," he said. "And we just do it."
So why is he willing to come up with the money to cover those benefits? "Well, OK, part of it’s selfish, because I think if I treat my employees well, they’ll stay longer and they’ll work harder," he said. "The other reason is I just feel like it’s something that should be a part of the benefits that are provided for anybody that actually works for me or works in this industry."
Having people handle food in his restaurant while they're sick because they can’t afford to take off doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, he finished.
Roann Sexson put the choice to her employees. "Would you rather have your salary? Or would you rather have five days of paid sick leave?"
That’s the choice she’s facing, she said. She owns an assisted living facility for elderly folks with dementia. If the ordinance goes into effect, she said, it’s going to cost her business $40,000 a year. Sexson said she runs on tight margins, so she would have to cut into employee pay to make paid sick leave work.
"100 percent said they would rather have their salary. 'Please don’t take our salary away.' I pay my staff more than the average for this industry. Like $2 and $3 more."
Business associations around the state are expressing concern that this ordinance would make Albuquerque unattractive to companies looking to move here, and would rack up legal fees as existing local businesses work to come into compliance with the new law.
Plus, Sexson added, the expense could shut down a lot of the smaller companies in the assisted living industry. "We’re going to see a lot of closures, and I think that’s very sad," she said. "My concern is that it’s going to displace many elderly people who need this service."
The ordinance, she said, would have a huge impact on the many small businesses that make up Albuquerque’s economy.
The coalition of groups who worked to get paid sick leave on the ballot includes: Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Strong Families New Mexico, El Centro de Igualdad de Derechos, SouthWest Organizing Project and Equality New Mexico.