By: Bob Sechler
Austin’s ordinance mandating paid sick leave for private employees got a swift diagnosis from detractors Thursday — a bad case of government overreach — even as supporters called it a boon for low-wage workers and for public health overall if it ever takes effect.
The comments came during a hearing at the Capitol over Senate Bill 15, a proposal that would prohibit Austin and other local governments from regulating sick-leave policies for private businesses or from putting in place other regulations “requiring any terms of employment that exceed or conflict” with federal or state law.
The Senate’s State Affairs Committee approved the bill on a 6-1 party-line vote following the two-hour public hearing, with state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, alone in opposition. State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, and state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, weren’t present.
The bill, which now will advance to the full Senate, prevents “local governments from meddling in (private) business,” said state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, a lead author. It also promotes “consistency across the state” instead of “a patchwork of laws that can change in a matter of miles,” he said.
Republican lawmakers, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have been lining up behind the proposal even though no businesses in the state have had to comply with such regulations.
Last February, the Austin City Council became the first local government in the state to approve a sick-leave ordinance, but it was struck down in November by a state appeals court before it took effect. Austin has until late March to appeal the ruling and city officials are still debating how to proceed, a city spokesman said.
The San Antonio City Council approved a similar sick-leave ordinance last summer, but it hasn’t been implemented yet either.
Supporters of such ordinances said Thursday that private-sector workers shouldn’t have to choose between their paychecks or reporting for work when they’re sick — particularly because the decision they make effects everyone.
“I don’t think any of us want to eat at a restaurant where we have sick people serving us food,” Jonathan Lewis, an analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said during the hearing. He cited statistics indicating that nearly two-thirds of Houston restaurant employees have showed up for duty sick because they didn’t have paid sick leave and couldn’t afford to miss work.
Austin City Council member Greg Casar, a driving force behind Austin’s sick leave ordinance, attended the hearing and made a similar case, saying “people (shouldn’t) have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of a sick child.” But he also urged members of the committee not to approve SB 15 because of what he called its broad wording, saying it will usurp the ability of local governments to address many issues involving workers in their communities and not just sick leave.
Several members of the Senate’s State Affairs committee, however, made clear that they view such ordinances as improper interference by local governments into matters better left to the private sector.
“It’s safe to say you think it’s more important that you make decisions how to compensate your employees rather than the government telling you how to compensate your employees,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who chairs the committee, said at one point in the hearing, summing up the view of a business owner who testified in favor of SB 15.
Committee member Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, agreed, saying private businesses don’t need prodding from local government to put in place quality benefits and employment policies because they know they face fierce competition for workers.
“Good businesses,” Nelson said, “will stay in business because they have good business practices.”