Austin could become the first city in the South to mandate paid sick leave

Progressive movements in Texas are gaining speed.

CREDIT: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post via Getty Images
CREDIT: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A vote this week will determine whether or not Austin, Texas will be the first city in the U.S. South to require paid sick leave, a distinction that could set the tone for other urban hubs in the region, as well as for progressive efforts in the state more broadly.

The Austin City Council will decide on Thursday whether or not to require all employers throughout the city to provide paid sick leave to workers. Private employers are currently exempt from providing their workers with paid sick leave, something that has had severe implications for the city. At least 223,000 people in Austin lack access to paid sick days — 37 percent of the Texas capital’s workforce. In some sectors, numbers are higher than others. Between 65 and 70 percent of workers in maintenance and service industries — including restaurant staff — do not have access to paid sick leave in the city.

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A coalition of local businesses and activists have been working to change that. Jose Garza, the executive director for the Workers Defense Project, told ThinkProgress that the effort is critical for the city, as well as for the larger state.

“We have an opportunity to improve the lives of almost a quarter of a million people [with this legislation],” said Garza. “When they get sick, when their children get sick, they have to make a choice between going to work sick or taking a pay cut. We have the opportunity to change that.”

Several Austin City Council members, led by Council Member Greg Casar, pushed for a vote on the paid sick leave ordinance with no delays after introducing the proposal in January. The ordinance would apply to all non-governmental businesses, capping paid sick leave at 64 hours. Employees would earn one hour of sick time per 30 hours worked and would be able to use the time for themselves or for family members. Pre-emptive care and time off relating to domestic abuse, sexual assault, or other related issues would also be considered valid uses.

“I’m grateful for the working families, small business leaders, and advocates who have been engaged in this policy process to ensure no one in Austin has to choose between paying their bills or taking care of themselves or a loved one when they are sick,” Casar said. “I’m committed to making this the best possible policy for all Austinites.”

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Blanket paid sick leave is uncommon in the United States. No federal laws cover paid sick leave and only seven states and Washington, D.C. have state or district-wide legislation in place. At least 28 cities and local jurisdictions have similar policies in place, virtually all in the Northeast or on the West Coast. No Southern cities or states currently have paid sick leave laws in place.

Austin could change that — but not before meeting stiff opposition. Some local businesses have argued that the proposal would cost them money, in a city where rising prices and an influx of newcomers from states like California and New York have already spread budgets thin. Hoover Alexander, who runs Hoover’s Cooking, told KUT that the ordinance could have severe implications for his business.

“It’s not about what I want to do,” he said. “It’s my concern about what we can afford to do.”

Others disagree. Darnell Franklin, an Austin worker employed by LSG Sky Chefs, told KUT that a bout with the flu in January cost him all three of his paid sick days for the year, in addition to several unpaid days off. “I live paycheck to paycheck,” he told the radio station. “Every paycheck is very valuable to me.”

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Stories like those are far from isolated incidents and progressive activists say it’s time for a change. In a state like Texas, taking a stand on issues like paid sick leave is especially important, Garza said.

People who live and work in the state of Texas have become accustomed to the state doing active harm to their families,” he said. “It is clear that the state and statewide elected officials have abdicated their responsibilities to working families.”

Garza pointed to the ongoing issues that have united activists over the past year. The paid sick leave effort is part of a larger movement, one that gained traction last summer during a special session of the Texas State Legislature. Called by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), the session saw an onslaught of controversial legislation, including SB4, a bill cracking down on so-called “sanctuary” cities, and SB6, a “bathroom bill” targeting transgender and gender non-conforming Texans.

In response, a coalition of progressive groups formed, staging a number of protests throughout the summer. That resulting energy mobilized activists in the state. Many now see issues like paid sick leave as the next in a serious of fights.

I think what has become clear to most families in Texas is that Gov. Abbott and his cronies have declared war on Texas families,” said Garza. “What you saw all last year were regular people, Texas families, standing up and saying ‘enough is enough.’ They came from communities across the state, they come from a variety of sectors and beliefs. But they believe families in Texas should be ahead. That momentum has not tempered. It is continuing to swell.”

But Austin’s paid sick leave vote has implications for many other areas. Sarah Johnson, the co-executive director of Local Progress, an organization that has worked to help Austin’s paid sick leave efforts advance, told ThinkProgress that the wider region stands to benefit from the city’s example.

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“Nearly two dozen municipalities and now several states across the country have led our country by advancing paid sick days policies that improve the public health and financial stability of our communities, and we’re thrilled to see Austin take this issue on,” said Johnson.

“Each new city that passes a policy helps inspire other cities to do the same. For example, in 2016 Minneapolis became the first city in the Midwest to pass paid sick days. Shortly after Chicago, Cook County, and St. Paul have followed suit,” she said. “In Southern cities, just like everywhere else, there is real momentum for policies that better support working people. We have already seen this with movements to increase the minimum wage and institute living wage policies.”

In Texas, issues like paid sick leave are precarious. The Republican-controlled state legislature could very well preemptively bar cities like Austin from leading on the issue. But rising progressive momentum in the state shouldn’t be underestimated, Johnson said.

“It’s really interesting that this vote is taking place against the background of potential state preemption in Texas. Organizers in Austin know the state will likely try to preempt the vote, and it’s not enough to stop them,” she said. “The fact that we are even having this conversation is evidence of the rising power of cities in Texas and the South. Last year, Texas cities fought back fiercely against [anti-sanctuary city bill SB4], and the fact that they were united was a big part of their success. ”

Support for the ordinance is relatively strong in Austin — 63 percent of residents approved of the ordinance in a December poll. But regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s vote, Garza said he hopes Texas workers will be prioritized.

People are hungry. They are hungry for leaders to take on real issues,” he said. “For the average person working in Texas, when they lose three days of work because they’re sick, they can’t afford their grocery bills. This ordinance has real implications for people in this town.”