The wrong version of a gay rights bill was sent to New Mexico governor Bill Richardson earlier this year, and he signed it, inadvertently wiping out broad civil rights protections for tens of thousands of New Mexicans. The problem may have to be corrected by lawmakers--reopening debate on a controversial measure that took advocates a dozen years to push through the legislature. The new law expands the state's Human Rights Act to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The act already makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, age, color, national origin, sex, physical or mental handicap, or serious medical condition. But the legislature mistakenly sent a version of the bill that contains language exempting businesses with fewer than 15 full-time employees from having to comply with any provisions of the Human Rights Act. Under current law, employers are exempt only if they have fewer than four workers. "It means that on July 1, small employers can discriminate against anyone they want to, for any reason," said Linda Siegle, who lobbied for the bill on
behalf of the Coalition for Equality.
According to the Department of Labor, there are about 37,500 private businesses in New Mexico that have fewer than 15 employees, and about 130,000 people work for them. Those statistics, however, do not distinguish between full- and part-time workers. About one fourth of the cases handled by the Human Rights Division of the state Department of Labor stem from complaints against employers of fewer than 15 people, said division director Francie Cordova. The mistake in the new law "gives the small employers the ability to flout the law if they choose to do so," Cordova said. And complainants won't have the option of going to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, because it handles only complaints involving employers with more than 15 workers, she said.
Richardson's legislative liaison, Eric Witt, said the governor's office is exploring whether there is any way to remedy the problem administratively or whether it requires action by the legislature, in which case it may be put on the agenda of the special session this fall. "One way or the other, we're going to fix it," Witt said.
It's not clear how the wrong version of the bill ended up on the governor's desk. The language exempting employers with fewer than 15 workers was proposed on the house floor by Rep. Daniel Foley (R-Roswell), whose intent was to exempt such employers from only the new sexual orientation provisions, not the entire law.