By Michael Ollove
For all the punishment COVID-19 has inflicted in New Mexico, the virus also is responsible for the state enacting one of the broadest paid sick leave laws in the country.
“It’s almost completely related to the pandemic,” said Democratic state Sen. Mimi Stewart, who co-sponsored the bill in her chamber.
The New Mexico law, which went into effect July 1, requires private employers of all sizes to give their workers one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to 64 hours of paid leave in a year. The law covers most workers, whether they are full-time, part-time or seasonal.
The importance of paid sick leave became evident early in the pandemic, Stewart said, when many low-wage workers in places such as grocery stores and meatpacking plants got sick but went to work anyway, fearing that they’d lose pay or be fired if they stayed home. That helped the virus to spread.
Even before the pandemic, an increasing number of cities, counties and states were requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. But COVID-19 illustrated that such laws aren’t just about protecting people’s livelihoods — they can help save lives.
Jennifer Pomeranz, an assistant professor of public health policy and management at the New York University School of Global Public Health, said the virus’ remarkable spread through meatpacking plants made a particularly strong impression on policymakers.
“Most agree that before COVID, everyone went to work sick because it was expected, whether you had sick pay or not,” she said. “This was the first time when it was discouraged for you to come to work when you got sick.”
Some research suggests that paid sick leave helped “flatten the curve” early in the pandemic. A study published in the journal Health Affairs, for example, found that in states that didn’t have paid leave laws but workers gained paid sick leave through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, there were an average of about 400 fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases a day in each state between March and May 2020, compared with what the numbers would have been without the emergency measure. The measure expired at the end of 2020.
A Canadian study published earlier this year that looked at the effect of paid sick leave on COVID-19 cases in Ontario reported similar results.
“One clear reason we’re seeing so much momentum and increased success at the state and local level, is the body of research is becoming clearer and clearer that paid sick time is essential for public health,” said Jared Make, vice president at A Better Balance, a national nonprofit that advocates for workers. “Paid sick leave is not only critical for the financial security for individuals, but also for businesses, especially in an age of pandemics when illnesses hurt productivity.”
San Francisco was the first U.S. city to require paid sick leave, in 2007. Now at least 20 cities and counties have similar laws, including four in Minnesota (Bloomington, Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul), three in Pennsylvania (Allegheny County, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) and two in Illinois (Chicago and Cook County).
In 2011, Connecticut became the first to enact a statewide paid sick leave law. Like New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia enacted laws during the pandemic, bringing the total number of states with such laws to 17. In some of those states, voters approved paid sick leave through ballot measures.
Many of the laws allow employees to use paid sick time when they have been the victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Some, including those in Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island, grant paid leave when schools are closed, under certain circumstances.
Many of the sick leave mandates also allow workers to take time off to care for others, such as children, spouses, parents and grandchildren.
Democrats have pushed the measures through almost entirely without GOP votes. At least 17 majority-Republican legislatures have gone a step beyond just voting no and have barred cities from enacting paid leave laws of their own. The last to do so was Texas, where legislators in 2021 invalidated paid sick leave requirements in Dallas. None of the Republican primary sponsors of that legislation responded to Stateline’s requests for comment.
“We believe local governments know their populations better than the state does,” said Vasu Reddy, senior policy counsel for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families, which advocates for paid sick leave. “They are worried if the cities show how popular these policies are, there won’t be an excuse for not passing them at a state level.”
In many places, organizations representing businesses, retailers and restaurants have opposed paid leave requirements, arguing that they would impose a financial burden on employers that would force them to reduce staff, curtail other benefits or even go out of business.
“If you want to offer it, it’s a great business advantage,” said Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, which lobbied against the law. “But we’re putting it on people who may not be able to afford it.”
Wight said that unlike many other businesses, restaurants cannot postpone work when an employee is out sick or taking time off to care for someone else. “In restaurants, that work has to be done,” said Wight. “Not only do we have to pay that person for sick leave, but we have to pay that person’s replacement. So, the expense is big.”
This year, the New Mexico Business Coalition considered trying to persuade lawmakers to water down the 2021 law. They wanted the legislature to exempt small employers from the requirement, to exclude temporary and seasonal employees and reduce the total number of hours off an employee could earn from 64 to 40.
However, because it was a legislative off-year, when lawmakers focus on budgetary items, sponsors needed Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signoff to take up a bill on another subject. She refused.
Carla Sonntag, the coalition’s president, said the group would try again next year but wasn’t holding out much hope for success. “Quite honestly, if there isn’t a change in leadership or attitude, it won’t go anywhere.”
Some states, such as Connecticut and Michigan, do provide exemptions for small employers. Others, including Arizona, Maryland, New Mexico and Rhode Island, exclude some classes of employees from coverage, in some cases because they already have similar benefits from existing laws, as is the case with some government employees.
According to a study published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of March 2020, 78 percent of civilian employees had access to paid sick leave. That still left more than 33 million workers without paid sick leave, with lower-wage workers less likely to have it. According to the bureau, Hispanic workers, heavily represented in seasonal and agricultural work, are much less likely to have access to paid sick leave than White workers.
As more states have adopted paid sick leave laws, proponents point to a growing accumulation of research attesting to the benefit’s favorable effects on workers, public health and even businesses.
Workers with paid sick leave are more likely to seek preventive health care. Paid sick leave is associated with a lower risk of mortality in general and specifically a lower likelihood of dying from heart disease and unintentional injuries. One study found an association between paid sick leave and lower rates of suicide and homicide among men and lower rates of homicide and alcohol-related deaths among women.
A study published in Health Affairs in August found a 5.6 percent reduction in emergency room visits associated with state mandatory paid sick leave laws. That was especially true of workers with Medicaid, the health plan for lower-income Americans. The study found workers with paid sick leave, along with their children, were less likely to show up to emergency rooms for treatments of abdominal pain, asthma, back and neck pain, ear infections and dental disorders.
Since the ER is the costliest place to treat patients, the study’s authors estimated that if all states had had mandatory paid sick leave in 2019, the overall health care cost savings would have been between $2.1 billion and $2.7 billion.
“We found paid sick leave policies may be able to help, giving patients the time and flexibility so they can visit their primary care doctor during the day,” said Yanlei Ma, a research fellow in population health at Harvard University and lead author of the study.
In terms of public health, one study found that workers with access to paid sick leave were more likely to be vaccinated against flu and to seek treatment when they were symptomatic compared with those without paid sick leave.
Proponents cite studies showing that businesses also reap rewards. Workers who show up sick can cost businesses by reducing productivity, and offering paid sick leave increases worker satisfaction and reduces worker turnover, yielding savings on recruiting and training costs.
Public health authorities caution that the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent monkeypox outbreak demonstrate society’s continuing vulnerability to infectious diseases. As new viruses arise, advocates think the pressure to mandate paid sick leave will only grow.
“We hear from workers every day who are forced to make choices between their health and losing a job,” said Make, of A Better Balance. “We saw this so clearly with COVID-19, and now we’re seeing it with the spread of [monkeypox]. Workers should not have to choose between their health or the health of their loved ones and their economic security.”
Michael Ollove is a reporter for Stateline, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared.
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