Phillips: Austin’s paid sick-leave plan is rushed. No wonder it’s unfair

Council Member Greg Casar’s proposed new ordinance requiring employers to provide paid sick leave for workers is simply written — not in the bureaucratese of most ordinances that originate with city government.

But make no mistake: It represents a seismic change in the way many companies do business in Austin. One would think that such a major shift encompassed in an ordinance that affects all employers — be they companies with 1,000 or more workers, or small businesses with fewer than five employees — would benefit from meaningful public engagement.

You would be wrong. Casar unveiled the ordinance Jan. 19, giving Austin employers and the public less than a month to review and discuss it, before setting it for a vote on Feb. 15.

That is absurd. Even a righteous goal can be unfair when the means to that end is flawed.

CITY HALL: Vote on mandating sick pay in Austin could face delay.

If the council cares about fairness, transparency and good governance, it should not permit the ordinance to advance until it is thoroughly vetted with the ramifications to all sides on the table. Though Casar did propose crafting an ordinance last September, there was no written draft to review until last month.

With passionate words, Casar has helped many in Austin understand the plight of Austin workers who don’t get paid time off when they are sick, stay home to care for a loved one or need time to go to a doctor’s appointment. That is a problem that warrants our attention.

“To me it seems clear that sick days should be a basic right of workers in a country as wealthy as the United States and city as prosperous as Austin,” Casar told me. “I believe it is the right thing to do.”

Few would take issue with the goal: Most larger companies provide sick time benefits. But employees without that benefit tend to be the most vulnerable workers in the labor market because their wages are low, hours are part-time or they are classified as temporary. In Austin, about 223,000 workers — or 37 percent of the city’s workforce — don’t get paid time off when they are sick, figures from a nonprofit coalition show.

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

We know them as the people who build our homes, landscape our yards, serve food in restaurants, take care of our homebound and those who install solar panels. They are the domestic workers, laborers, contract employees and caregivers.

Under the proposed ordinance, an employee would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. It would cover part-time and temporary employees who worked at least two weeks for an employer. Full-time employees working 40 hours a week would earn eight days of paid sick time a year. Casar’s measure caps sick days at eight, but employers could exceed that cap.

The city of Austin – one of Central Texas’ largest employers — has about 2,600 temporary employees who currently don’t receive paid sick leave. Unless the city adopts paid sick time rules, it would be exempt from Casar’s ordinance, as would the Austin school district, Travis County, University of Texas, state of Texas or other governmental entity that legally would be beyond the reach of a city ordinance.

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

Casar has clearly framed one side of the issue regarding sick time. But it’s far more complex than that.

There are serious issues, such as the financial impact on small employers, including nonprofits who rely heavily on interns or part-time workers; whether all employers — regardless of whether they have five workers or 5,000 – should be held to the same standard for paid sick time; the toll on undocumented workers; and the Legislature’s likely bashing of Austin for stepping on a revered rail of Republican principles. Then there is the issue of the city’s authority to subpoena the books of employers when employees formally complain that their sick leave rights were violated.

Add to that the impact on businesses with tight budgets and profit margins, particularly those owned by Latinos and African-Americans. Many of those small businesses feel they have been denied the input and respect others got up front – particularly pro-labor groups.

Frank Fuentes, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, said the lifeline for small businesses is their line of credit and access to capital and bonding. The ordinance would make it more expensive to do business in Austin — as businesses would have increased labor costs — which could in turn, decrease their credit and borrowing, Fuentes said.

COMMENTARY: Paid sick leave plan needs more focus on financial impact.

He added that the city’s ability to audit or subpoena a company’s books to investigate complaints by workers would discourage contractors from hiring undocumented workers because “they are going to have to be prepared for (city) audits.”

Hoover Alexander, who owns Hoover’s Cooking, a restaurant in East Austin, said: “I know this is coming from Council Member Casar’s heart and he is trying to protect minority employees.

“But what about minority employers who hire those employees? I believe there needs to be an independent assessment of the impact of the ordinance on small businesses.”

Like Alexander, I admire Casar’s zeal for workers’ rights. But there is a thin line between passion and overreach when legitimate – and yes, opposing — viewpoints are crowded out of discussions.

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