Monday, May 29, 2023

Back to the drawing board with paid family medical leave


Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, a trailblazer for women, passed away recently at the age of 82. She retired in 1996 at age 56, having served 24 years.

Schroeder championed the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act barring employers from terminating women because they were pregnant. In 1993, after multiple attempts, she was a driving force behind the bill that guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member.

Now, 30 years later, the U.S. remains one of seven countries in the world without some form of paid family leave. Only one in four workers has access to paid leave through private or public employment.

To bridge that gap, 13 states have enacted paid-leave laws. Nine are active, and four have future activation dates. These laws differ widely in specifics, including amount of pay, time off, and even how they are passed. Some are legislatively enacted, and some are passed through ballot initiatives, as in Colorado.

Family leave is generally defined as time off to care for a newborn or adopted child, a parent, spouse, partner, or another relative as defined by state.

Medical leave is the term used to cover time off for a health condition that makes it impossible to work.

This year, New Mexico Democrats made a serious push for paid family medical leave with the introduction of Senate Bill 11, sponsored by Senate Pro-Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and others.

The bill would have created 12 weeks of paid leave for employees to bond with a child, provide care for a relative, and take measures to protect their families from domestic violence. Those too sick to work would also have medical leave. The bill passed two Senate committees; it passed the full Senate by 25-13.

In the House it was assigned to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee with 11 days remaining in the session. It was there that paid family medical leave came to a screeching halt. The deciding vote to table the bill was cast by Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, a pro-business Democrat who votes 90% of the time with Democrats.

Paid leave has increased support at the federal level with a recognition that it helps to recruit and retain employees. Three Democrats and three Republicans in the U. S. House are working on the issue.

In 2022, New Mexico had a bipartisan task force comprising business, labor and advocates working on a bill.

So, what happened to SB 11?

SB 11 would have created a fund to pay for paid leave administered by the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS). Employees and employers, through a payroll tax on wages, would have paid into the fund beginning in 2026. Funds would have been available for use in January 2027.

An initial appropriation to DWS of $36.5 million would have funded standing up the mechanics of administering the fund. Smaller general fund allocations would have been made in the future, assuming DWS could hire the additional employees needed for the program.

Critics claimed it would kill small business.

Sponsors touted its success in other state programs that differed from what was proposed in New Mexico.

For Matthews the fiscal analysis of the bill presented a problem. With a conservative 4% uptake rate the fund would be sustainable. But with the broad eligibility in SB 11, New Mexico health factors such as diabetes and liver disease, the usage rate might climb as high as 10%, rendering the fund insolvent. By then, the state would have invested over $50 million dollars in administration of the fund. To keep going, rates on employees and employers would have to be raised.

Pat Schroeder made multiple attempts. We should too. Back to the drawing board for an improved approach.




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