Austin becomes first city in the South to mandate paid sick leave

A historic win for progressives.

Austin, Texas. CREDIT: Amy E. Price/FilmMagic
Austin, Texas. CREDIT: Amy E. Price/FilmMagic

Austin, Texas became the first city in the U.S. South to require paid sick leave for its nearly 1 million residents, a landmark victory after a year of swelling progressive activism throughout the wider state.

The Austin City Council voted late Thursday evening to mandate six to eight paid sick days for non-governmental workers across the city, following a campaign led by a coalition of lawmakers and activists. The ordinance passed 9-2, with only Council Members Ora Houston and Ellen Troxclair voting against. Following the ordinance’s passage, those in attendance burst into thunderous applause and began singing in celebration.

“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,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the ordinance. “Austin is now the first city in Texas and the first city in the South to have a citywide paid sick days policy.”

Jose P. Garza, Executive Director of Workers Defense Project, hailed the ordinance’s passage as a victory for workers across the city, as well as for Texans more broadly.

“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,” said Garza in a statement.  “Tonight, working families in Texas have made history.”

Government employees already had paid sick leave in Austin, but upwards of 37 percent — 223,000 people — of the city’s population have operated without it. Those numbers are far worse in service and maintenance industries, where closer to 70 percent of workers lacked access to paid sick leave.

The ordinance is set to take effect on October 1, 2018 — eight months from now. Workers will begin earning sick time immediately; those working for employers with 15 or fewer employees will earn up to six paid sick days per year, while those working for larger employers will earn up to eight. Employers with five or fewer workers will have a delayed start to their six paid sick leave days, kicking in October 1, 2020.

Paid sick leave is a rarity in the United States and virtually non-existent outside of the Northeast and West Coast, even in cities. Until now, no Southern city has mandated paid sick leave, making Austin a rarity in the region, as well as in Texas. Prior to the vote, supporters of the paid sick leave ordinance faced opposition from a number of local businesses, as well as conservative figures throughout the city and state. But hours of commentary and testimonies from more than 200 city residents proved compelling for council members. Now, the city has made history.

The ordinance’s passage marks a victory for a growing progressive movement in Texas, one that surged last summer during a special session of the Texas State Legislature. Organizers and activists from across the state united against an onslaught of legislation targeting a number of communities, including undocumented immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and those in need of reproductive health care. Organizers told ThinkProgress earlier this week that the momentum from the summer has endured into the present, empowering movements like the paid sick leave effort.

I think there is new and bold leadership, not just in Austin and other cities, but in smaller places as well, where local officials have an opportunity and an obligation to make a difference for the people they serve,” Garza of the Workers Defense Project said prior to Thursday’s vote.

Austin’s ordinance may face opposition at the state level, something activists have acknowledged. The GOP-controlled Texas State Legislature could move to bar efforts like Austin’s, hindering cities from moving ahead with policies like blanket paid sick leave. But activists say they’re ready for that fight — as well as future progressive battles on a number of issues, now made more possible by Thursday’s victory.

In the long-term, what’s really important from our perspective is to make sure that we are affirmative and leading with the issues that unite us and define who we are as progressives,” Garza said.

We are not going to let the state’s threats stop us,” he continued. “If the state of Texas wants to explain why they think a person who works shouldn’t have the opportunity to take the day off, they can do that.”