By: Chuck Lindell
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, rebooted efforts to block Austin and other cities from dictating paid sick leave and other business policies, saying it’s time for the Legislature to overturn “crushing” regulations on private employers.
Saying the regulation of employment practices belongs to the state, not local governments, Creighton began with Senate Bill 15, a sweeping measure to void city regulations on employee benefits and schedules, as well as rules limiting companies from asking about criminal history early in the hiring process.
He then broke Senate Bill 15 into four smaller bills, each of which won approval from the Senate State Affairs Committee — sending the measures to the full Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 19-12.
“As local governments creep in the way of growth and success, it’s our obligation to rein them in for the sake of the Texas economy,” Creighton told the committee late Thursday. “In my opinion, these are four of the most pro-business bills that we can pass.”
Opponents of the four bills said city officials are in a much better position to determine the needs of their communities and should not be blocked from improving the lives of workers.
Activists also questioned the bills’ impact on anti-discrimination ordinances that offer employment protections for LGBT people in Austin and at least five other major Texas cities.
Austin officials say that while state law does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, city ordinances do — requiring employers to offer benefits and engage in hiring practices without bias.
Creighton’s bills, they said, would reduce Austin’s ability to regulate workplace discrimination and potentially eliminate the city’s discrimination protections altogether.
Holt Lackey, an Austin lawyer and board chairman for Equality Texas, agreed, telling the committee that the bills were needlessly ambiguous.
“By knowingly passing a bill that is more ambiguous than it could be, we increase this risk of uncertainty and inevitable litigation that imposes costs on Texas’ citizens, cities and employers,” he said.
Lackey said the fix was easy — restore language in the original version of SB 15 that specified that the bill would not affect city ordinances or rules prohibiting employment discrimination.
Creighton declined, telling Lackey that the language — included because the original bill was very broad — was no longer needed when SB 15 was rewritten to block specific employment regulations. The language was not needed in the four new bills for the same reason, he said.
In addition, a representative of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton testified Thursday that under standards set by the Texas Supreme Court, a state law cannot preempt a city ordinance unless it does so “with unmistakable clarity.”
That specific intent is lacking in Creighton’s bills, said David Hacker, Paxton’s special counsel for civil litigation.
“It is clear, on these bills, that they would not preempt local nondiscrimination ordinances,” Hacker said.
Creighton’s four bills would void local rules, and block new ones from being adopted:
- HB 2485 would ban requirements for particular employee benefits, such as life or dental insurance, gym memberships and cell phone reimbursements.
- HB 2486 would prohibit mandatory scheduling practices for businesses, such as an Austin ordinance requiring construction workers to be given a break of at least 10 minutes for every four hours worked.
- HB 2487 would ban mandatory sick leave or vacation leave for employees. Austin was the first Texas city to require paid sick leave, but the ordinance never took effect and was eventually struck down by a state appeals court last year.
- HB 2488 would block regulations that limit an employer’s ability to ask job applicants about their criminal history. Austin’s “fair chance hiring” ordinance prohibits businesses from asking about criminal records in the early stages of hiring, when applicants can be weeded out before getting an interview.
Most of those testifying in Thursday’s hearing supported Creighton’s bills, including hotel and apartment owners, builders, contractors, small businesses and the travel industry, as well as business owners who said a patchwork of city employment regulations would complicate operations, raise costs and limit employee benefits.