Like many Austin residents, Lucio Peña recently came down with the flu.
It kept Peña, 25, out of his full-time job at LSG Sky Chefs for a week and a half. For many, the extended illness would amount to a tolerable inconvenience.
But Peña is one of the 223,000 workers in Austin — 37 percent of the city’s workforce — who do not get paid time off from work when they fall ill. Pay from those work days is lost, and the illness has caused him to get behind on several bills.
“We’re way behind,” Peña said while holding his 3-year-old daughter Sophie at a community forum this week at Carver Branch Library in East Austin.
Peña was there to learn about a proposed city ordinance that would require private employers in Austin to pay sick leave to all employees. The ordinance, which is set for a City Council vote on Feb. 15, would be the first of its kind in Texas.
Under the proposal, an employee would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. For a full-time employee working 40 hours a week, that would mean eight days of paid sick leave a year. The total amount of sick days would be capped at eight.
The ordinance would have the greatest effect on the maintenance, construction and service industries, that last group including restaurant staff and caretakers. Between 65 and 70 percent of employees in those sectors do not have access to sick leave, according to data from the Work Strong Austin Coalition, a coalition of activist groups supporting the ordinance.
Sick leave also generally is not given to those who work the least number of hours and are paid less.
While the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is not outright against the idea of mandating sick pay, Tina Cannon, the chamber’s director of local government relations, did say that such an ordinance should warrant more time for study before the council votes.
“Given that Austin has at least 30,000 employers, that written public feedback was strongly against the concept, we have a lot of questions about a one-size-fits-all mandate to be imposed on the private sector,” Cannon said in an emailed statement.
Last year, the Austin Independent Business Alliance surveyed more than 100 employers and found that a large majority were against the city regulating sick pay. Of the surveyed businesses that do not provide sick leave, 70 percent cited costs as the reason.
While the city can mandate sick pay rules for all private employers, it would not apply to government jobs, including state government agencies, public schools, the University of Texas and even city of Austin employees.
In total, that amounts to more than 100,000 jobs, according to agency and school district websites, the University of Texas and the Texas Workforce Commission. State law prohibits government subdivisions like cities and counties from mandating work policies for government entities.
The city of Austin provides paid sick days to its full-time employees. However, no sick leave is provided to the city’s 2,582 temporary employees, according to the city. If the council adopts a paid sick leave policy for private employers without addressing its own policy for temps, the city could be in a situation where it would not be in line with the spirit of an ordinance it enforces. This fiscal year’s city budget is supposed to implement sick time for temps, but that has not happened yet.
The ordinance would not usurp current sick policies in place at private employers who provide eight or more days of sick leave or paid time off.
At Wednesday’s forum at the Carver Branch Library, Council Member Greg Casar, the lead sponsor of the ordinance, predicted it would pass. Austin residents also appear largely in favor of the ordinance, with 63 percent of those polled supporting the ordinance and 19 percent opposed, according to a poll of 600 conducted last month by Public Policy Polling.
But even before a vote takes place, the idea of the Legislature overturning such an ordinance was already on Casar’s mind.
“This can and should pass in Austin shortly, and if the Legislature wants to have a conversation about that, we’ll do that,” he said.