Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Austin just became the first city in Texas to pass an expansive paid sick leave policy, despite state preemption measures that bar them from passing other progressive workers’ rights bills.
A young woman who sought an abortion, but couldn’t take the three days off work to safely get it. A construction worker whose baby son was feverish and having seizures, but who had to go back to a site before the boy returned from the hospital. A victim of sustained domestic abuse who needed time during work hours to seek legal help, but feared losing the day’s wages.
These are the stories of workers in Austin, Texas, who will benefit from a mandated paid sick leave policy, passed late last week. After five hours of emotional testimony on Thursday night, the Austin city council voted 9-2 for the bill, becoming the first city in Texas—and in the entire southern United States—to do so. Beginning in October 2018, an estimated 87,000 Austin workers will begin to accrue one paid hour off per 30 hours worked.
Today, 40 million American workers aren’t paid for the time they take off for health reasons. The U.S. is one of a few countries worldwide that have no national paid sick leave policy in place, besides an Obama-era executive order granting it to federal employees. To fill these federal gaps, cities have begun implementing local measures, driven first by San Francisco in 2006, and since seeping into places like D.C., New York City, and Seattle. It’s been less successful in others: After Milwaukee passed its own city-level law in 2008, the Governor of Wisconsin passed a state law prohibiting mandated paid sick leave. And Austin’s law could still face a similar fate.
Austin’s policy is not only unprecedented for its region. It’s stronger than many other cities’: Unlike D.C., whose mandate includes carve-outs for particular industries (like restaurant waiters), Austin’s covers the entire private sector. Austin will require that all private employers with more than 15 employees allow workers to accrue up to 64 hours, or eight days, of paid sick leave. Small businesses with 15 or fewer employees will give up to 48 hours; and micro-businesses, with 5 or fewer employees, will be required to provide 48 hours of paid sick leave, but only after October 2020. “Sick days,” under this policy, will also include “safe days,” for families dealing with the legal and health repercussions of domestic violence.
The bill was championed by Austin city councilman Greg Casar, along with immigrant and workers’ rights organizations like the Austin-based Workers Defense Project. “We realized that for too many people, when they get sick they have a really important choice to make,” said Jose P. Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project. “Between taking a pay cut and going to work sick, or sending kids to school sick.” Too often, that burden falls on Austin’s large Latino community. “The majority of Latinos don’t have paid sick days,” said Casar. “This policy will change the majority of Latino working families’ lives.”
But the win may be precarious. State representatives could later act to reverse Austin’s policy by exercising their power of preemption—already, Republican representatives have promised as much. “I will make good on my promise to file legislation on the first day possible to reverse this and the other liberal Austin policies they enacted,” said Representative Paul Workman in the Texas Tribune. Representative Donna Campbell took to Twitter to say she’d fight Austin’s “intrusion into the private sector.” Most contentious are the restrictions on the smallest businesses: Councilmember Jimmy Flannigan proposed exempting micro-businesses entirely, but ultimately signed the version that delayed it to 2020.
These representatives are not without local support. A group of 137 small business owners in Austin signed a petition in opposition to the bill, writing they were “not against the workers but against this policy.” The legislation is part of a war against small business, they say, drafted and passed without business input. But unless the state intervenes, they’re stuck: Any businesses that don’t comply will be fined $500.
Casar believes potential political ramifications might foil dissenters. The state legislature doesn’t meet again until January 2019, months after the city policy is enacted. “If state legislators want to overturn Austin’s policies they’ll have to look at their own constituents and explain why they want to take their paid sick days away from them,” he said.
Corporate interests may, too, come around. Jessica Milli, an analyst from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research told the Texas Observer that “the policy will actually save Austin employers around $4.5 million due to both lower turnover and the fact that most workers will use only a few days of leave annually.”
Austin’s move is the latest in a string of workers’ and Latino rights efforts in the city.
Casar and the Workers Defense Projects’ collaboration in Austin began when Casar was a community organizer, fighting to get Texas construction workers the right to a basic water break. “Workers in our city were getting sick or even dying on the job,”as they labored in the often over 100 degree Texas heat, said Casar. In 2010, due to their efforts and those of other environmental and immigration non-profits, Austin passed a mandatory rest break law. In 2015, they successfully fought to increase Austin’s minimum wage for city employees from $11.39 to $13.03 an hour. And when Texas passed Senate Bill 4, a severe anti-sanctuary city law, it was these same groups who sued the state to challenge it.
“It’s not surprising that the same sort of coalition of elected officials advancing the fight against SB4 have turned to this issue,” said Sarah Johnson, the director of Local Progress. “Workers and immigrants are important to the foundation of cities. The work being done around SB4 has created a strong coalition that has advanced from defense to offense.”
Aggressive defense and offense are required in southern states like Texas, where state officials have blocked their more liberal cities from passing progressive legislation: They’ve enforced top-down bans, or used the threat of future bans to produce a chilling effect.
Casar says that this time, the threat of state preemption wasn’t a deterrent. "If we don’t pass [progressive policies] because we’re scared of the legislature taking it away, then we’re essentially complicit in the legislature’s anti-worker politics,” said Casar. “The right thing to do is step up, pass policies that protect workers and then fight the legislature to keep those policies.”
Passing a paid sick leave policy like this was made even more urgent by state preemption policies that already limit workers’ (and women’s) rights, said Casar. Texas prohibits cities from passing a minimum wage higher than the federal level of $7.25. They’re banned from planning cities with some forms of inclusionary zoning, from introducing rent control, and from implementing an affordable housing linkage fee. And as a state that has severely limited abortion access, Texas women need more time off than in other places to safely pursue that option.
“In order to keep working families in our city, you’re really constrained by the state legislature from doing things that will raise wages—and we have way fewer tools to reduce rents,” he said. “Paid sick days are one workers right that’s not banned under Texas law.”
While Austin was the first to rebel successfully, it’s not the only progressive city in largely red Texas, said Casar. “[Texas] cities—because of gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement and the lack of immigration reform—are heavily underrepresented in state and federal government,” he said. But many of these cities are also made up of majorities of people of color. “At the local level, we can not only resist anti-immigrant polices but we can actually be a beacon of social equity and workers rights.”
Already, lawmakers in Dallas are planning their own parallel legislation. Said Dallas city councilman Philip Kingston in the Dallas Observer: “I fully anticipate that there will be an effort both on council and from workers' rights advocates to bring this measure to Dallas.”
Both cities have growing populations that hover around one million, making them bigger than some U.S. states. Effectively expanding workers’ rights there could galvanize more nationwide action, said Local Progress’ Johnson, as long as state preemption doesn’t ultimately stall it.
“For too long, elected officials in Texas have focused on the things that divide us,” said Garza. “This is an issue that brings people together, and I think people are hungry for that.”