Commentary: Paid sick leave plan needs more focus on financial impact

Updated Jan 31, 2018
  • By Ellen Wood and Mason Ayer
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Cynthia Smith administers a flu shot to Willie Chavez at the South Austin Regional Clinic in January.

At the end of the day on Jan. 19, the Austin City Council posted a draft ordinance that would mandate paid sick leave for Austin-area employers. You’re probably expecting this to be the predictable response from the Austin business community, telling you what a bad idea it is — how many jobs would be lost and what a terrible precedent it would set for Austin. All of that might be true, but that’s not what you’re going to hear.

It might surprise our City Council to know that the challenges part-time workers face when they get sick or when a family member is ill, as well as the public health goals the proposed paid sick leave ordinance aims to address, are familiar to us. We personally recognize the importance of sick time, which is why the Austin-based businesses we each lead already offer generous PTO policies to our employees.

CITY HALL: Will Austin require all employers to provide paid sick leave?

As business owners, we navigate those issues every day. We can tell you companies that don’t offer reasonable paid time off for those circumstances find it more difficult to compete for employees in Austin’s tight labor market. In fact, we suspect most companies in Austin already have leave practices that meet or exceed what the council is hoping to accomplish. Of course, we don’t know that for sure — and neither does the City Council.

That’s because projections of how many employees would be affected by this change come from national labor estimates, not any Austin-area analysis. For a policy that would make Austin the first city in Texas to mandate paid sick leave – creating complications for companies that have locations throughout our region, hamstringing nonprofits who employ thousands of seasonal workers and forcing corporations to reconsider paid career acceleration programs for interns – we owe our community a better foundation for such an important decision.

That key detail aside, our bigger concern is this: Once again, the Austin City Council didn’t really want to hear from us. As you’ve read in the news coverage, there are repeated assertions about the vastness of the public input around this ordinance, particularly from “the business community.” While we don’t doubt that conversations with business leaders occurred, the first time the Austin Chamber saw the ordinance was after it was publicly posted — a mere three weeks before a scheduled vote. In public policy years, that is a millisecond.

TWO VIEWS: Austin sick-leave policy pushes entrepreneurs to suburbs.

We are concerned this sends a message that city leaders wanted to appear to have gained public input on the ordinance, without the hassle of actually hearing it from those most directly affected.

There are certainly many concerns we’d want to discuss – for example, those outlined the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce blog describing the unintended consequences and oversights in the current draft ordinance. They would have discovered that we actually understand the goal and could partner to find a way to achieve the outcome desired without making it even more difficult to do business in Austin.

We would also ask the toughest question: Why the city of Austin exempted itself from complying with their own measure after citing lack of paid sick leave as “unjust” directly in the ordinance? If the council can be trusted to do the right thing and empowered to change their practices at any time, why can’t Austin-area businesses? We think that is unjust.

Most of all, we’re tired of pretending that “the business community” and “the Austin community” are two different things. The residents of Austin are both employers and employees. We are the same as other Austinites who attend the ACL Music Festival, go to Alamo Drafthouse to see the latest indie film and enjoy Eeyore’s Birthday Party. Let’s stop pretending we’re separate and let’s start really talking about what’s best for Austin.

TWO VIEWS: Sick-leave policy lifts struggling workers, city’s economy.