Austin workers no longer will have to choose between going to work sick or staying home without pay when a child or family member is ill because starting Oct. 1 all but the smallest employers in the city will have to offer paid sick leave to workers.
That is good policy that protects the public’s health and puts meaning to Republican rhetoric about family values.
The Legislature’s unwillingness to address a public health risk and mistreatment of employees in labor-intensive, lower-wage jobs, such as construction, landscaping, housekeeping and food service, pushed Austin to act. The City Council passed its paid sick leave ordinance in February.
San Antonio and Dallas are following Austin’s lead, waging campaigns to put paid sick leave on the November ballot.
The ordinance requires employers to provide one day of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to eight days for large employers and six days for businesses with 15 or fewer workers. Businesses with five or fewer workers will have until October 2020 to comply.
It’s the right thing to do. Yet, the ordinance, the first in Texas, faces fierce pushback from GOP-leaning policy and business groups suing Austin to invalidate the statute. So far, Austin has prevailed in that battle, pitting workers’ health and economic stability against companies’ financial bottom lines and Texas’ regulatory authority.
Last month, a state district judge denied a request for a temporary injunction from plaintiffs — the Texas Association of Business, the National Federation of Independent Business and the American Staffing Association. The effort has the backing of state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who says the ordinance violates state law.
The legal struggle might end up before the Texas Supreme Court. And while Austin has the right to defend the ordinance in court and the moral authority to stick up for workers and families, the city faces a steep climb keeping it intact, even if it wins the legal fight.
Already GOP lawmakers are preparing to kill the measure when the Legislature convenes in January. State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, has said he intends to work to pass legislation overturning the ordinance. State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, also has signaled she wants the ordinance nullified. Allowing it to stand, she said, would make Texas less attractive for businesses and startups.
We remind them that family values don’t spring from thin air. In many cases, they require regulations and enforcement. Think about child labor laws that restrict the employment of children. Consider that few things speak as strongly to family values as the ability of a parent to care for a sick child without sacrificing the rent check.
Nationwide, momentum is building for paid sick leave, and not just among the usual suspects, California and New York. In Arizona, among the 10 states that have paid sick leave policies, state leaders sent the issue to voters. It passed by a big margin in 2016. Got that? A state in which most voters identify as Republican passed paid sick leave for its workers.
In Texas, an estimated 4.3 million Texans who make up about 40 percent of the state’s workforce don’t have access to paid sick days, according to the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. The best solution would be for Texas lawmakers to remove their blinders and pass paid sick leave.
In these matters, unfortunately, recent history is not on Austin’s side. As a backup plan, city leaders might want to think about more flexible strategies, such as incentives, education and training, to achieve paid sick leave for workers.
A city’s home-rule authority is broad under the state constitution in areas in which the state has not exercised authority. Texas regulates the minimum wage but so far is silent on paid sick leave. That might soon change.
Under the current GOP triumvirate — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Paxton — Texas, whose founding leaders were bullish on a decentralized state governing structure, now wants to consolidate power at the state level. They want a big fat bureaucracy that acts as mayor and city council of individual communities.
So, when Texas cities passed local ordinances banning disposable plastic bags to address environmental and drainage problems in Austin and protect livestock in Fort Stockton, the triumvirate used the state’s authority to nullify the ordinance. When the effort stalled in the Legislature, an all-Republican Texas Supreme Court got it done.
Using its legislative power, the state last year crushed a measure passed by Austin voters regulating ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.
That approach betrays the very characteristics that have made Texas such a standout as a place to do business, raise families and attract millennials and companies from across the nation. We’re talking about the state’s amazing diversity of values, geography, people and politics that vary from one community to another.
Those are healthy differences that enrich our freedoms and spur ideas.
We won’t deny that there are certain problems the state is best suited to tackle because they would benefit from consistent application across local boundaries. Instead of addressing the issue as Arizona has done, Texas GOP lawmakers want to ignore the problem.
If the big state bureaucracy wants to shirk its responsibility to protect the public’s health and lower-wage workers, then at least get out of the way and let Austin and other cities do the job.