Paid sick leave debate heats up as Republican state officials challenge local ordinances
State lawmakers in Texas are no strangers to local-vs-state battleground issues. First it was plastic bag bans and Uber ordinances. Now, Republican state lawmakers are challenging municipal ordinances in Austin and San Antonio to mandate paid sick leave for non-government employers.
A proposal for the idea passed in Austin back in February by a 9-2 City Council vote. The Austin mandate would apply to any non-union eligible employee working within the city limits, regardless of where the employer is headquartered, its size, or how many workers are employed.
Now, the city's attorneys are defending the policy in court, with the ordinance set to take effect Oct. 1 of this year. The ordinance would require many businesses to offer 64 hours of sick time each year. Businesses with 15 or fewer employees would be required to offer 48 hours of paid sick leave.
The San Antonio City Council will conduct a public hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 8, to enlist community feedback on its proposed paid sick leave ordinance.
City Council members were informed Thursday that petitions to put the proposal on the November municipal ballot had the required number of valid signatures.
With 70,419 signatures validated (after 144,000 were purpotedly submitted), the council has until its Aug. 16 meeting to hold hearings on the issue before an Aug. 20 deadline for the measure to be included on the ballot. Council members could vote to approve a sick-leave ordinance or decide to place it on the ballot.
If approved by voters, the ordinance would require employers in the city to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capped at six or eight days annually depending on the size of the business. It would also allow parents to take time off to care for sick children. It's estimated that about 350,000 workers in the city do not currently have paid sick leave.
Business groups - including the Texas Association of Business, the National Federation of Independent Business and the American Staffing Association - are heading up the challenge to the local measures. They argue the court should strike down the ordinance because it violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which prohibits cities from requiring employers to pay minimum wages above federal standards. Meanwhile, Austin's legal team has filed briefs stating that paid sick leave is not a wage and should not be subject to the Texas Minimum Wage Act.
In June, Texas state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) filed in court an amicus brief against the local proposal passed in Austin.
"Texas is not Washington, D.C., San Francisco, or California - In Texas we embrace statewide policies that promote economic prosperity and discourage cities from punishing small businesses with a patchwork of burdensome regulations that make it harder to keep their doors open," Campbell said in a statement.
Attorney General Ken Paxton has said the municipal ordinances would be invalid even if passed. Paxton wrote a letter to the mayor and city council in San Antonio "to inform you that no matter the Council's decision or the result of any ballot initiative, Texas law preempts a municipal paid sick leave ordinance."
Paxton's letter says the city would be in violation of the state's Minimum Wage Act if it attempts to enact a paid sick leave ordinance.
"When the Legislature enacted the Minimum Wage Act, it intended to set a single, uniform policy for all of Texas," Paxton said. "The policy it set made no mention of requiring employers to provide paid time off from work. The law expressly preempts cities like San Antonio from passing a different law simply because they disagree with the judgment of the state's elected representatives."
Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) and other state Republicans have said that if lawsuits to block these ordinances are not successful, legislation will be filed to preempt cities.
"Regardless of costs and its impracticality, Austin's bitter pill of a private-employee mandate to leave work will be shoved down private businesses' throat because of the City of Austin's continued war on the private sector," Rep. Workman said.