A proposed ordinance that would require private employers to give paid sick leave to tens of thousands of Austin workers is garnering national attention as the Austin City Council is poised to take a vote on the issue Thursday.
Already state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, and a Koch brothers-backed lobbyist group have vowed to pre-empt any paid sick leave regulation passed by the City Council in next year’s legislative session.
On Sunday, the ordinance was mentioned by British newspaper The Guardian in an article that the ordinance’s chief proponent, Council Member Greg Casar, was quick to point out was shared on liberal paragon Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Facebook page. The measure would make Austin the first city in Texas to require private employers to pay employees for sick days.
“I believe that it will inspire other cities across the South to pursue paid sick days for all workers,” Casar told the Statesman. “I think that is exactly what we need to be doing right now while we have a federal government hell-bent on attacking workers’ rights, and state government seeming much more energized by taking workers’ rights away.”
Casar’s ordinance, unveiled last month, would require employers to begin providing one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours an employee worked, with an annual cap of 64 hours or eight full-time workdays. The city would enforce the law on a complaint-driven basis that could lead to $500 fines if a business refuses to voluntarily undo any sustained violations.
Backers of the ordinance believe it creates a more equitable working environment benefiting those on the verge of poverty and homelessness.
Detractors believe it will threaten small businesses, and the pace of the ordinance’s potential passage — a first draft was made public less than a month ago — has led some to call for a delay to the vote Thursday.
“The main thing is that we are not against this,” said Skeeter Miller, owner of the barbecue restaurant The County Line. “We just feel like we need more time.”
Casar said the idea of a February vote has been around since he announced an intention to work on a paid sick leave ordinance last summer and when the council passed a resolution related to paid sick leave in September. And on Monday, Council Members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo and Casar announced their support for a vote on Thursday.
“I absolutely understand the passion and compassion coming from Council Member Casar,” said Hoover Alexander, the founder and owner of the East Austin restaurant Hoover’s Cooking. “It is not due to my lack of want, it is a question of can I afford to do it.”
The economic impact of the ordinance remains up for debate. A study released Tuesday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that requiring sick pay would have a net cost benefit of $8.3 million with businesses saving money overall by having reduced turnover.
Meanwhile, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce said employers would spend $140 million annually to provide paid sick leave in an admitted “back of the napkin” calculation far higher than the study’s estimate of $34.3 million.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan on Monday proposed a substitute paid sick leave ordinance that limits how many sick pay hours a part-time worker could accrue in small businesses and a complete exemption for businesses with five or fewer employees.
On Tuesday morning, a representative from the Workers Defense Project, an organization backing Casar’s ordinance that has close ties to the council member, said that Flannigan’s substitute ordinance a gift to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
It led to some verbal sparring during Tuesday’s council work session with Flannigan directly challenging Casar.
“Do you believe that I am being backed by the Koch brothers?” Flannigan said to Casar.
“I don’t know why you are asking that question of me,” Casar replied.
“At a press conference this morning, your former employer (the Workers Defense Project) made that accusation,” Flannigan said. “You subsequently shared social media posts that made that accusation.”
After some back and forth, Flannigan pressed Casar until Casar said he did not believe that.
A spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business/Texas, the lobby group connected to the Koch brothers, said that the organization does not support any paid sick leave mandated on a municipal level and would not support Flannigan’s substitute ordinance.