New Mexico employers must now offer paid sick leave. Here's how the new law is 'a huge step forward for workers'
Beginning July 1, private employers in New Mexico must allow their employees to earn paid sick leave if they don't already do so.
Workers covered by the Healthy Workplaces Act of 2021 may use the time off to recover from an illness or injury, assist an ailing family member or address covered legal or domestic situations. They will be able to accrue 64 hours annually in most cases and accumulate unused time year to year, although the employer does not have to allow them to take more than 64 hours off.
The law makes the earned benefit a right to private sector workers, which Stephanie Welch, the Workers' Rights Director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, called "a huge step forward for workers" across the state.
"New Mexico rated near the bottom of people working for private employers who had access to paid sick leave," she said in an interview. "We estimate it is going to affect about 300,000 workers."
Remaining in effect, however, are systemic disparities in unearned benefits, held by some groups and not others, in different employment sectors and sometimes even within a single workplace.
It could be more liberal access to time for taking a walk and stretching, perhaps even exercise at a work-based gym; the flexibility to work remotely instead of coming to the office; not taking emails or texts while away from work; being able to afford get-togethers with coworkers without feeling stressed about the cost; or simply feeling secure and valued by one's coworkers and managers.
Because some workers enjoy these and other boosts to their happiness and wellbeing at work, Laura Putnam coined the phrase "wellness privilege" to describe these and other kinds of unearned perks.
Putnam is the founder of wellness consultancy Motion Infusion and the author of "Workplace Wellness That Works," who frequently speaks about wellness in workplaces.
"The way wellness is typically framed is around 'personal responsibility,'" she said in an interview. Explaining, she listed many suggestions employers offer to workers to take care of themselves, taking frequent "mini-breaks," eating whole foods, prioritizing what they love to do and presenting "your full, authentic self."
"Every single one of these tips comes with a whole lot of assumptions," Putnam said. "They ignore the context within which the individual is actually able or not able to make the so-called 'healthy' choices."
Ironically, workers in some of the most essential industries have the least room to negotiate for human needs, Welch said. Two prime examples are farm workers who harvest the food consumers buy at grocery stores and domestic workers who care for the elderly and disabled and clean homes. Welch said these workers are often excluded from basic worker protections and specifically from the right to organize and collectively bargain.
"People doing the most essential work should be treated like it: They should be paid and receive benefits that match how much everyone relies on them," Welch said, adding: "It's not a coincidence that those are some of the workers with the lowest wages and the fewest benefits."
Welch traced the inequities to the formal end of chattel slavery in the United States, observed on the June 19 federal holiday known as Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is Sunday. What's the significance behind the federal holiday?
Post-slavery, Welch said, "southerners were trying to preserve their labor market that was most African-American workers providing agricultural work or domestic work." Additionally, she said unions were loath to organize those workers historically in deference to the interests of white union members.
Exclusions from protections for those sectors aimed to keep workers of color vulnerable, she said: "We've been living with that purpose of the law ever since."
The center addresses inequities in pay and working conditions through litigation as well as advocacy and working with communities from the ground up to identify and challenge systemic roots of inequality. "We see a tie between the legal exclusions and the wages and working conditions that people have when they're excluded from the right to organize," she said.
Putnam, whose clients are mostly corporate entities in office or manufacturing environments, approaches the conversation from a different angle as a wellness consultant, persuading employers that the health, happiness and equality of their workers benefits the organization and its objectives.
"Wellbeing for everyone … is essential for building a high-performing team," she said. "Give me any metric that matters for your organization and I will show you how it ties to wellbeing."
She, too, recognized the role of systemic racism in maintaining these inequities among workers; and because it is distinct from individual or conscious prejudice, she said it is often invisible to workers who enjoy greater privileges and flexibility at work.
Talking openly about inequities in pay and benefits, who gets heard in meetings, who changes how they present themselves or speak in order to fit in with the group, among other challenging subjects, Putnam said.
"Once we understand how these systems are either working for or against us, we can better understand how we personally navigate that," she continued, "and also what we as individuals can do to act as allies for others."
At the center, meanwhile, Welch said structural racism in law and business continued to function as designed, to exploit communities of color and the economically vulnerable.
"It continues to impact the same communities it was originally intended to impact," she argued. "Agriculture workers are overwhelmingly Latinx, domestic workers are overwhelmingly immigrant workers and also overwhelmingly women. We see how the intent to preserve a labor force that had fewer options has continued to today and continues to affect people in inequitable ways."
("Latinx" is a term sometimes used as a gender-neutral alternative to "Latino" or "Latina.")
From Welch's perspective, not all industries or employers will come to see workers' health and happiness as business priorities, which is where legal and policy work enters in.
Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, email@example.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.