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Tuesday, November 28, 2017 by Jack Craver

A sick leave ordinance is coming, but details are unclear

A coalition of city leaders and advocacy groups is pushing for Austin to join many of the nation’s largest cities in requiring employers to provide employees with a certain number of paid sick days.

On Nov. 15 at the People’s Community Clinic in Northeast Austin, a group of small business owners assembled to lend their support for the effort, which is being led in City Council by Council Member Greg Casar.

Amanda May, the owner of the Purple Fig Eco Cleaning Company, said paid sick leave is one of the many benefits she provides her staff of 15 home cleaners, along with a low-deductible health plan, paid vacation and a 3 percent 401(k) match.

“Before employees are employees, they are people,” she said. “And people get sick. To be sick without worrying about bills can allow people to heal.”

Others speaking in support of the policy were Regina Rogoff, the CEO of People’s Community Clinic, and Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, a physician at the clinic.

Gandhi said that he regularly treats patients who work in low-wage jobs and can’t take the time off work they need to recover from an illness or injury. The result is not just the worsening of their condition, he said, but increased disease transmission to colleagues, customers or other people the sick worker interacts with on the job.

In the past five years, Democratic governors in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont have signed paid sick leave bills into law. In Arizona, activists went around the Republican-controlled legislature and put the issue on the ballot, along with a minimum wage hike, and earned the support of 58 percent of voters on the same day that Donald Trump carried the state by 3 percentage points.

Major cities that have enacted paid sick leave ordinances in recent years include New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

While Casar is set on pushing for a paid sick leave ordinance, he has not proposed specific terms, saying that he is waiting on input from stakeholders, including businesses, before crafting a proposal. So far there have been two public input sessions coordinated by the city for people to voice their thoughts. A final session will be held Thursday evening at Fiesta Gardens.

“I really want to give the variety of stakeholders a chance to collaborate,” Casar told the Austin Monitor, noting that there were a number of variables in play, including the number of sick days, which employers would be affected and how the ordinance would be enforced.

Business groups are also raising alarms about new mandates. The Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Austin Technology Council put out identical statements urging their members to voice their concerns to Council members. “A one-size-fits-all government-mandated sick leave policy does not work for most tech companies and will inhibit your ability to create an environment and PTO policy that works best for your business,” said both statements.

Tech Council Director Barbary Brunner told the Monitor that her group isn’t against city government putting in place mandates targeting employers that don’t offer employees any time off. Her concern is that a city ordinance might force tech companies to redesign their leave policies, which are typically more generous than average. Rather than offering employees a certain number of vacation days, personal days and sick days, most tech companies provide workers a certain amount of leave that they can use for any purpose, including vacation or illness.

“There needs to be a solution for that 37 percent of the population that has inadequate sick leave policy in their workplace,” she said. “But I also think we don’t punish businesses that have robust programs.”

Brunner said she had met with Casar and that he “sounded receptive” to the concerns she expressed. Casar affirmed her perception, calling her comments “critical stakeholder feedback.”

“It seems to make a lot of sense to me that we should be rewarding or at least recognizing those employers that are providing ample time off,” he added.

The chamber has yet to take a position on the issue, said spokesperson Mike Berman.

Casar said that he hopes to have an ordinance crafted and approved by Council in February.

Photo by John Flynn.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce: The Austin Chamber of Commerce is a private, membership-driven organization that includes 3,000 businesses, civic organizations, educational institutions, and individuals. According to the chamber's website, "Its mission is to provide leadership that facilitates the creation of a prosperous regional economy and effective advocacy for its members."

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