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New Austin Sick Pay Ordinance Raises Hackles

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A new Austin paid sick leave ordinance that was set to go into effect on October 1 of 2018 was blocked just two months prior when Austin business groups filed a lawsuit claiming that the ordinance went against the state constitution.

Paid Sick Leave Ordinance Blocked

The ordinance, which was passed by Austin City Council in February of 2018, mandates that employers with 15 or more employees must offer eight days of sick leave for every year of work. Employers with less than 15 employees must offer six days of sick leave for every year of work. However, implementation of the ordinance in October was blocked by Texas’ 3rd Court of Appeals in August. The business groups who filed the lawsuit against the City of Austin blocking the ordinance are led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

A group of attorneys convened at a think tank in February of 2019 to convince Austin City Council members to uphold the temporary blocking order. One attorney, representing the state of Texas, went on record saying that the ordinance would “undermine state sovereignty and upend constitutional structure.” 

Claims That It’s Unconstitutional

Making the argument that it’s in the state’s purview to determine the minimum wage within the state, Andrew Davis, with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said that the paid sick leave ordinance is essentially raising the minimum wage. Further, the lead attorney for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Rob Henneke, says any city mandate that exempts unionized businesses is unconstitutional, and that a broad spectrum of Austin city businesses were asking for relief.

An Argument For the Other Side

On the other side of the argument, an attorney for Austin named Paul Matula argues that the lawsuit was filed “before the facts had played out.” While he acknowledges that City of Austin businesses would have to make some adjustments, he maintains that the evidence for the injunction is less than compelling.

Full Trial May Ensue

If the block is lifted, the ordinance might go into immediate effect. The panel of three judges was entirely focused on the temporary injunction, but a full trial of the constitutionality of the ordinance itself could likely take months. Already, 29 lawmakers have vowed to fight the validity of the ordinance. 

Other Cities Follow the Lead

Interestingly, when the ordinance first passed, two other major cities in Texas followed suit, including San Antonio and Dallas. However in Dallas the petition fell short of the required number of signatures to put the paid sick leave ordinance on the ballot.

The willingness to follow suit of other cities in Texas plays into the Workers Defense Projects’s argument for the ordinance. Says Jose Garza, executive director of WDP, Thousands of people in three Texas cities have spoken and made clear that they want to be able to take a day off when they get sick. As has become customary, our statewide leadership is working to undermine working people across the state of Texas. 

Willing to Bear the Expense

Citing the expense of paying for paid sick leave on such a scale, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has argued that “paid sick leave comes at a high cost for employers and to workers themselves.” Yet, it seems like many small businesses are willing to comply if necessary. “This is easily one of the least expensive benefits we can provide,” stated one small business owner.

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