Aid for the Ailing

Austin makes history as first city in Texas to require mandatory paid sick leave

Austin makes history as first Texas city to require paid sick leave

exterior of Austin City Hall
Austin City Council made history on February 15 with a vote mandating paid sick leave for Austinites. Photo courtesy of Society of Architectural Historians

Following controversial action by city council, Austin is now the first city in Texas — and the South — to mandate paid sick leave for private-sector workers.

The Work Strong Austin coalition pushed for passage of the ordinance, which was approved early on February 16 in a 9-2 vote. The measure enables private-sector workers to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work; full-time, part-time, and temporary workers can then use the leave to care for themselves or family members.

“After tireless organizing and advocacy, our coalition has fought and won an ordinance alongside our allies on Austin City Council that ensures all workers have the right to take care of themselves or a loved one when they are ill,” Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, said in a release issued after the vote. “Tonight, working families in Texas have made history.”

Under the ordinance, someone working for an employer with 15 employees or fewer will be able to earn up to six paid sick days per year. For someone working at an employer with a workforce above that threshold, it’ll be eight days per year. An employer that violates the ordinance could be fined as much as $500 by the city.

The ordinance won’t take effect until October 1, 2020, for employers with five or fewer workers.

Currently, about 211,000 private-sector workers in Austin lack access to earned sick time, and about 87,000 workers lack paid-leave benefits of any kind, including vacation, according to a February 2018 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Council Member Greg Casar spearheaded the new sick-leave policy. “In cities across our country, communities are coming together to make real progress at the local level. Last night we showed the country what pro-worker, progressive governance in the public interest can look like here in Texas and in the South,” Casar said in a February 16 release. “After months of building a movement for paid sick days, I’m so proud of the efforts of our community to achieve this historic policy victory.”

State Rep. Paul Workman, an Austin Republican, is already vowing to push state legislation in 2019 to prohibit Austin and other Texas municipalities from requiring private-sector employers to offer paid sick leave.

Workman says he supports employer-provided sick leave but insists it shouldn’t be mandated by government officials. By passing the sick-leave ordinance, the “liberal” city council has “declared war on the private businesses that make our prosperity happen,” he says.

Among the groups opposed to the city’s new mandate are the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Independent Business Alliance, and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

The chamber says city council members hastily pushed through the ordinance without relying on solid Austin-specific economic data to back it up. “They ignored all of [the critics]. That just sticks in our throat,” says Mike Rollins, president and CEO of the chamber. “Policy shouldn’t be made by guesswork.”

The Austin-based Texas chapter of NFIB, a lobbying group representing small businesses, calls the Austin ordinance a “job-killing measure” that unfairly targets small employers. “Many businesses already have a policy for taking care of sick employees either with a written policy or on a case-by-case basis. This measure goes too far in dictating small businesses’ internal policy and interfering with the employer-employee relationship,” NFIB says.