by Andrew Oxford, Santa Fe New Mexican

Lluvia Ramirez Orozco switched jobs last year and lost her health insurance coverage. She said she had enough medication to alleviate her migraines for a few months.

But when the medication ran out and a cheaper alternative from Mexico did not suffice, the 35-year-old part-time housekeeper had to choose between reporting to work at a hotel with dizzying, nauseating migraines or calling in sick and losing money her family could not afford to go without.

Ramirez Orozco’s predicament is common among New Mexicans.

Nearly half the state’s private-sector workforce cannot take a paid day off work because of illness, according to a report published last week by the advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children.

The study says New Mexico ranks highest in the nation for the share of private-sector workers without paid sick leave.

The report argues for expanding access to this benefit, but policies requiring employers to provide it have sputtered in recent years. Business groups remain opposed to such measures.

Approximately one-quarter of New Mexico’s workforce is employed in the public sector and is more likely to have access to paid sick leave. That benefit is less common in the hospitality and retail industries, major employers in the state’s private sector, according to Gerry Bradley, the report’s author.

Paid sick leave generally is less common among low-wage workers, compounding the financial challenges they face, he said.

Veronica Garcia, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said losing wages to recover from an illness or care for a child becomes more threatening when monthly earnings are already low.

“Most jobs that lack benefits like paid sick leave are already low-income jobs. So having to lose wages in order to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member is an additional burden on an already vulnerable population,” she said in announcing the report.

Women are also disproportionately affected by lack of access to paid sick leave because they are most likely to stay home with an ailing child, according to Jessica Milli of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“Sick leave can be used for your own illness or a sick family member,” she said. “By and large, women are the ones taking leave for that reason.”

New Mexico Voices for Children’s report suggests access to paid sick leave is a matter of public health. The study says lack of paid leave leads workers to neglect their own health concerns, often being forced to seek more expensive care later, when their condition worsens.

Citing the risk of ill workers spreading sickness on the job, Milli noted that industries in which access to paid sick leave is lowest include food service and child care.

“Those are exactly the occupations where you want someone to stay home when they’re sick,” she said.

The Rev. Holly Beaumont of Interfaith Worker Justice, an advocacy group that backs expanding paid sick leave, said, “Anyone who’s a consumer should be very suspicious of a business in the food industry that does not want to provide paid sick leave.”

But the head of a trade group representing restaurant owners across New Mexico countered that proposed ordinances for paid sick leave are “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Carol Wight, chief executive officer of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said competition in the restaurant industry will lead more businesses to offer paid sick leave as a benefit.

As major restaurant chains improve benefits for their employees, smaller businesses will be pressured to do the same, Wight said.

Under the state’s standards for food server licenses, she said, restaurant employees cannot work when they’re sick.

Wight also argued that local or state laws on paid sick days would merely place a larger financial and regulatory burden on smaller eateries.

“It really does mean the difference between one extra job at a restaurant,” she said.

Providing one week of paid sick leave annually would cost approximately $240 million — 0.35 percent of the state’s gross domestic product — according to New Mexico Voices for Children. Its report says the cost could be offset by higher productivity and reduced turnover.

The report says large groups of the private-sector workforce in several states are not covered by paid sick leave benefits. Idaho ranked just slightly better than New Mexico with 49.3 percent of such employees uncovered. In New Mexico, 49.7 percent of private-sector workers do not receive paid sick leave.

Maryland had the best rate, with 39.1 percent of private-sector workers uncovered.

The report notes that a growing number of states and municipalities have adopted laws that give workers the right to earn paid sick days.

San Francisco enacted a sick-leave law in 2007. Since then, 17 cities have adopted such ordinances, as have California, Connecticut and the Washington, D.C.

The study recounted that labor groups have pushed the Albuquerque City Council to adopt ordinances ensuring one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked. The proposal has not passed, but labor organizations have signaled interest in a petition to put the matter before voters.

While opponents have argued those laws would hurt the business climate, recent research points to more nuanced outcomes.

Ben Van Kammen, a lecturer at the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University, said paid sick leave mandates in several cities have had a negative impact on employment and wages. But those effects were so small as to fall within the margins of error in his research, he said.

Van Kammen said mandates have shifted employment as workers move to jobs where benefits are newly required. “The law in an unexpected way makes those industries more attractive,” he said.

But, he said, businesses required to provide paid sick days have tended to cover the cost by offering low wages.

Many states, counties and municipalities have considered bills, but Van Kammen suggested the federal government might be best positioned to enact a policy on paid sick leave. A federal mandate may be perceived as most burdensome but would avoid creating disparities between jurisdictions.

In New Mexico, a House memorial approved in 2015 formed a working group to bring together businesses, government agencies and advocates to develop recommendations for a parental paid-leave program.

The group plans to hold meetings around New Mexico this year.

“There are so many misconceptions this won’t work,” said Pamelya Herndon, executive director of the Southwest Women’s Law Center, which is involved in the working group. “We have to get people at the table and tell us what their fear is.”

The group plans to present findings to legislators in October, Herndon said, expressing “high expectations” for action in the 2017 legislative session.

Meanwhile, Ramirez Orozco and a few co-workers have partnered with the immigrant workers rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido to form a committee at the hotel where they are employed. The workers’ committee has made progress on several issues, she said.

But without paid sick leave, Ramirez Orozco said, her colleagues often report to work when they’re ill, no matter how much sickness may slow them down.

“They’re afraid their hours will be cut,” Ramirez Orozco said.

She takes pride in doing good work. “I do my job really well when I’m healthy,” Ramirez Orozco said.

Copyright 2016, Santa Fe New Mexican (