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Thursday, December 21, 2017 by Jack Craver

Council plans to take up sick leave ordinance in February

Over the past month, the city of Austin has tried to gather community input on the issue of paid sick leave and whether the city should require employers to provide it.

Unsurprisingly, many employers aren’t happy about the idea. In the three public town hall meetings facilitated by city staff that drew a combined 125 people, a number of business owners voiced their concerns about a policy that they said could force them to close.

Opposition to mandatory paid sick leave was particularly pronounced among the 183 people who submitted comments online through SpeakUpAustin.org, explained city Communications Director Doug Matthews, who led the public input process, during a Dec. 14 presentation to City Council.

Opposition from the business community is not unanimous. A number of small businesses have publicly backed the campaign for a sick leave ordinance.

The opposition voiced by employers did not appear to sway many Council members, who mostly appear inclined to support a paid sick leave ordinance in the coming months.

“We didn’t conduct the stakeholder process as a poll,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who is leading the sick leave effort in Council. “We’re not trying to say, ‘Who can send in the most online comments?’”

But even if it were a scientific poll, he added, “I think we’d find that the vast majority support this.”

Council Member Delia Garza agreed, reiterating a point she had made previously: Those who show up at Council meetings are not generally representative of the broader community.

“The people who need to engage the most because they need the most help are the hardest to engage,” she said. “I know for every one person who showed up to these meetings to say that they need paid time off, there were 1,000 other Austinites who would have liked to show up to say the same thing.”

A national poll conducted a year ago showed that more than three-quarters of Americans supported guaranteeing all workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. However, there is plenty of evidence that voters will back down if they’re convinced that the policy will threaten jobs. Just last month, voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, narrowly rejected a sick leave ballot initiative after a last-minute push by business groups that warned the policy would damage the local economy.

Casar has said that he wants Council to vote on an ordinance in February, shortly after Council has its first meeting of 2018 on Jan. 30.

Council Member Alison Alter, though supportive of the concept of a sick leave ordinance, said she suspected Council needed more time to craft a policy. Other cities that have put in place such policies have generally done so “at the end of a much more lengthy process,” she said.

There is not yet a proposal on the table and Casar has thus far said that he wants the stakeholder engagement process to play out before he begins putting together the details to the plan.

Among the many details to be worked out: How many paid sick days will be required and will there be exemptions for businesses of certain sizes or certain types of employees, such as part-time or temporary workers?

Casar has also suggested that the ordinance may not necessarily require businesses to offer sick days if they instead provide workers with paid time off that can be used for any purpose, including illness, as many tech companies now do.

Council Member Leslie Pool, herself a longtime union member, said that she would like to make sure that a sick leave policy would not mandate sick days, but ensure that employees are able to take them.

“A detail of it that concerns me is the ability of an employer to possibly veto an employee’s desire to take a sick day or paid time off without any good reason or just flat out say, ‘No, you can’t take off,’” she said.

Without commenting on the issue itself, Mayor Steve Adler applauded the stakeholder process that gave businesses the opportunity to voice their concerns. He said that he expected a draft ordinance to be ready about a month before Council acts on it.

“I would anticipate … that something is going to make it to the dais in February, and I want to make sure that (businesses) have the opportunity to participate and no one would be objecting at that point because they didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the process,” he said.

Casar said that he was busy fielding concerns from businesses large and small, from AT&T to a local vegan ice cream store, and planned to “craft a policy that at the outset shows some level of listening to everybody even if in the end there’s no one policy that everyone is going to agree with.”

The only real opposition voiced to a sick leave ordinance came from Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who predicted that small businesses would suffer as a result.

“I think as an economic policy, putting in place something that is going to disproportionately negatively impact small business, the backbone of our nationwide economy as well as an important part of our local economy, I think is a poorly guided policy,” she said.

© Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons

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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.

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