The Austin City Council on Tuesday took its first crack at an ordinance that would require all private businesses in Austin to provide employees with sick pay, a measure that could become a test of council members’ progressive bona fides.
The council is set to vote Feb. 15 on the ordinance, which would mandate that all employees begin accruing sick leave at a rate of one hour of leave per every 30 worked, with an annual cap of 64 hours of paid sick leave (or eight full eight-hour work days.)
While the ordinance has garnered endorsements from progressive organizations, including the county and state Democratic parties and a coalition of labor groups, trade groups have begun raising questions about it. Many have noted that a majority of their members are against the ordinance, and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has asked for the council vote to be delayed at least 90 days and called for further study of the measure’s potential impact.
The specter of a delay crept onto the dais Tuesday when Council Member Ora Houston asked a procedural question as to when she would be able to proposed delaying the vote. Mayor Steve Adler said that would be taken up on the day of the scheduled vote.
The ordinance would be the first of its kind in Texas.
Council Member Leslie Pool floated the idea of creating exemptions for small businesses. Pool also said she was wondering why the council was taking this up, when it seems likely that the Texas Legislature would nuke any such ordinance during next year’s session.
“This feels like something that should be a statewide benefit,” Pool said. “I know we are in Texas, so I know that is a high mountain to climb, but it feels like what we should be doing here is directing a statewide policy.”
Council Member Kathie Tovo said that because of Austin’s left-leaning tendencies, the city could emerge as a statewide leader on this issue.
“Frankly, there would be a lot of good work we wouldn’t do if we worried about what the Legislature will do,” Tovo said. “Perhaps it will be a model for other municipalities throughout the state.”
Council Member Greg Casar, the architect of the ordinance, has been publicly pushing since September for the city to regulate sick leave.
Though applying a broad regulation to all private businesses with employees who work in Austin is not unprecedented, the city has generally extended those regulations, such as living wage requirements, to those who do business with the city.
Investigating violations would be a complaint-based process conducted by the city’s Equal Employment and Fair Housing Opportunity Office. Businesses caught in violation of the ordinance would be given 10 days to comply. If they refuse, they would face a $500 fine.
A coalition of nonprofit advocacy groups that support the ordinance have put forth a study showing that 223,000 Austin workers — 37 percent of the city’s total workforce — are given no paid sick leave.
Though the ordinance would change that, more than 100,000 government jobs would be exempted.
Some amendments to the ordinance were proposed Tuesday. Casar proposed delaying enforcement until October and allowing employers to provide notification of paid sick leave accrual through electronic communications.
Correction: This article has been updated to correctly attribute a quote to Council Member Leslie Pool.