The drive between Las Vegas and Carson City is seven hours long. The view is mostly full of sagebrush, with the occasional burro sitting under the shade of a Joshua Tree off to the roadside. You almost forget a population of more 2 million is back down the road.
Nevada’s capital—where the Legislature meets once every two years— is 431 miles away from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area, where seven out of ten Nevadans live.
That’s farther than Las Vegas to Pheonix. It’s farther than Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. It’s farther than Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
Every few weeks the Time to Care Coalition, a statewide coalition of 24 organizations including the nonprofit Make the Road Nevada, has organized trips of working Nevadans to Carson City by rented bus to lobby on Senate Bill 312, the Legislature’s paid leave bill.
The bill mandates that private sector employees at businesses with 50 or more employees earn .01923 hours paid leave for every hour worked — equivalent to 5 days of leave over the course of a year for an employee working 40 hours a week. The paid leave requirement does not cover temporary, seasonal, or on-call workers.
The majority of the people on the bus are Latino who work for employers with less than 50 employees, and many are temporary or seasonal workers.
“We’ve all agreed that we’re going to ask the legislators to lower the number of employees. Instead of 50, drop it to 25,” says Juan Martinez, who works conventions. It’s not stable work, he says, but there’s a lot of it in Las Vegas.
“No hay peor lucha que la que no se hace,” he says in his native Spanish. There is no worse fight than the one that is not fought.
The bus stops outside a Chevron station and food mart on the edge of Tonopah for lunch. Many of the license plates in the parking lot are from out of state: Arizona, Utah, California, one from Illinois.
“It’s like going to another state,” Martinez chuckles.
On the ride from Las Vegas to Carson City children drink orange juice, watch Guardians of the Galaxy, and seem to regard their time on the bus as more of a camping trip than a trek to influence public policy. Jimaya Almazan is a stay-at-home mother of three. Two of them are missing school for the trip; she worries about that but she worries about other things too.
“Getting time off for him is easy,” Almazan says of her husband’s job, a maintenance worker for a company with about 24 employees. “But the thing is he doesn’t get paid.”
“He has to find other small jobs here and there to make up for it. And if he doesn’t—we struggle to make bills.”
Upon arriving in Carson City, the morning starts in a Golden Nugget conference room. It’s almost like being back in Las Vegas — the decor is mildly ostentatious, and a sign outside of the building reads “Extremely loose slots” in all caps. In the lobby of the hotel sits a replica of the 1966 Batmobile, the one that Adam West drove. The kids don’t seem impressed. They don’t know who Adam West is.
Lobbying practice starts over a breakfast of mini muffins and coffee and lasts a little over 10 minutes. The group plans to split off and speak to different legislators in order to maximize their time. They practice telling their stories in effective and compelling ways in 5-minutes or under, like a story slam or an episode of The Moth Radio Hour.
Natalie Hernandez, one of two paid lobbyists for Make the Road Nevada, tempers expectations.
“Some meetings might be canceled so go with the flow,” Hernandez says. “We’ll make sure you get to meet with at least one person.”
“Okay, let’s go kick butt you guys,” she says.
The legislative building where lawmakers convene is a 10-minute walk away from the hotel.
“Legislators see the need,” Hernandez says. “That’s why we’re highlighting this specific group of folks, because they are the ones that are being left out and we want to make sure they’re seeing the faces of the people that are being left out.”
Rosario Moreno’s husband works at a construction company with less than 50 employees. A while back her husband was injured and had to miss seven days of work — seven days of pay. They tried to avoid it but they had to borrow money, which they still haven’t managed to pay back.
“If the law is at 50 employees it’s useless to me,” Moreno says, in her native Spanish.
“They pay us so little. The money we earn is day, by day, by day. If we miss a day or more of work we fall behind.”
As the legislative session nears it’s end, canceled meetings are common, as lawmakers try to squeeze bills into the 120-day legislative calendar, says Hernandez.
“A lot of the time when we do meet with legislators it’s for a very short period of time,” Hernandez says.
Hernandez and her group is able to meet with Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, but the meeting with the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, is canceled, as it was last time the organization brought constituents to Carson City last month.
“You’re going to be waiting three times longer than your meeting with Fumo,” the man working at the front desk jokes before the meeting with Fumo. He’s pretty close. The wait for the 15-minute meeting is a little over 45 minutes.
Nevada is one of only four state legislatures that meet every other year instead of annually. Nevada used to have annual sessions, but Nevada voters passed a ballot initiative approving the every-other-year structure in 1960. Since then there have been numerous attempts to revert to yearly sessions. All have failed.
The paid sick leave bill was introduced on March 18, a Monday, and got its first hearing about month later on April 11, a Thursday. The bill made its way out of the Senate Tuesday, May 15th. It now must get through the Assembly with only a couple weeks left in the legislative session.
Out of the 19 legislators the group met with seven of those meetings were canceled, because they were on the floor moving bills before the Friday deadline.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” says Mary Dungan, a campus security guard for the Clark County School District, who is lobbying more for her son than herself. She wears a lapel pin on her sweater in the shape of Nevada, a blue gemstone placed were Carson City would be, and earrings cut out like Nevada with every county outlined.
“People deserve to get well even when they can’t afford to lose a day of work,” Dungan says.
Almazan, the mother of three on the trip, waits on the first floor of the legislative building with a stroller to meet with Assemblyman Edgar Flores. The meeting is canceled. So is her meeting with Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui. She is, however, able to meet with Sen. Moises “Mo” Denis, who she calls “really nice.” His wife is one of her son’s teachers.
“Last time that I came was my first time,” Almazan says. She is shy, she says, her hands hugging a white mug of coffee. “I got super nervous. He came in and I was shaking. But I liked it. I saw on TV, when people would do protest, and thought ‘do they even listen to that?’ Here, they sit down and listen to you.”
The agreement among lawmakers, according to the constituents who spoke with them, is that the paid sick leave bill will leave many Nevadans out, but it’s a step in the right direction. The lawmakers are sympathetic to the group. The legislators are “nice,” — “friendly,” “helpful,” “busy,” — the group says.
But the coalition doesn’t know if niceness will translate into amending legislation that by one estimate leaves as many as 192,000 working Nevadans without paid leave.
“We want the bill to be as beneficial for as many Nevadans as possible, after we saw the carve-outs come out from the language,” Hernandez says. The original bill applied to any private employer with 25 or more employees but received major push back from business groups. “But I think we’ve had a strong presence here and legislators saw how important this is. Something is going to pass. We’re just trying to make sure it’s the best one possible.”
The ride back that night is long and dark. Streetlights are nearly nonexistent between Carson City and Las Vegas. Any burros or Joshua trees or crumbling concrete buildings between the two cities aren’t visible. For the group, the time they spent in the bus is longer than the time spent lobbying the Legislature. Almazan says she’ll likely do it again. Hernandez says there might be one more last-minute bus trip to the capital.