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Sick leave arguments heat up

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 by Jo Clifton

An ordinance that would force all private Austin businesses to provide paid sick leave for their employees may prove to be the most divisive issue to come before Council since 2015 when the Council district system started.

Sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen and Delia Garza, the ordinance would provide one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked for an employer, up to 64 hours per calendar year.

From the conversation at Tuesday’s work session as well as an earlier press conference in favor of the ordinance, it appears that at least six members of Council will vote for the Casar plan, which would gear up over the next seven months but not take effect until October.

In addition to the sponsors, Casar noted that Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Pio Renteria expressed their support at the press conference in favor of the ordinance.

Renteria told the Austin Monitor late Tuesday that the ordinance was important to him, particularly because neither his brother nor his nephew, who work in landscaping, have ever had sick leave. In fact, he said, his brother has worked for landscaping companies for more than 25 years and has never had sick leave. And they only have health care because of the Affordable Care Act, he said.

Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Ora Houston and Ellen Troxclair seemed to be firmly opposed to Casar’s ordinance.

Flannigan posted his own proposed ordinance on the City Council Message Board on Monday, sparking its own controversy, and providing fuel for an argument between Flannigan and Casar.

Under Flannigan’s proposal, businesses would not be required to provide paid sick leave during the first 12 months of their operations and businesses with five or fewer employees would not be required to provide paid sick leave.

Flannigan said Casar’s ordinance was “pretty dramatically different” from ordinances in cities across the country, particularly those that were not in states that have their own sick leave requirements.

Independent contractors are not covered by either the Casar proposal or the Flannigan proposal. Casar said there was confusion on that point and that he would amend his ordinance to make sure it was clear that independent contractors would not be covered. Nor would employees of governmental units, which would be illegal, he noted.

Council Member Leslie Pool was obviously torn, wanting to stand with the liberal majority, but questioning how the city could force private businesses to give their employees paid sick leave when the city was not doing that for all of its employees.

“Until I feel like we’re walking the talk,” as opposed to merely talking the talk, Pool said, it would be hard for her to support the ordinance. She also complained that there should be a statewide policy on sick leave, which the state of Texas lacks. “This has come at us very quickly,” she said.

Human Resources Director Joya Hayes told Council providing paid sick leave for all city employees not currently covered, including temporary employees, would cost an estimated $350,000 to $1.4 million. Kitchen disputed the higher number, pointing out that sick leave only costs money when another person is required to step in and do the duties of the sick person. Hayes did not disagree with that assessment, but said it may be difficult to determine exactly how much the extra sick leave will cost the city.

Casar promised that he and others would amend the next city budget to include sick pay for all employees, including the ones not currently covered.

Houston asserted that the city’s 33,000 small businesses did not have “the bandwidth” to figure out the ordinance. But her biggest complaint was that owners of small businesses were treated badly when they attended stakeholder meetings about the matter.

Casar recalled a different process. He said, “I was at stakeholder meeting after stakeholder meeting after stakeholder meeting where people with very different viewpoints came together and had a great conversation. I saw literally restaurants that were supportive next to restaurants that were hardcore opposed, sitting next to hardcore advocates asking for 12 days (of sick leave).”

He then asked Houston to name or email him the name of someone who felt they could not come and testify, “anybody receiving that kind of pressure. … I would be happy to call them myself and tell them they should come and testify. As we know, there can be passionate conversation – I know that many of the advocacy groups are still meeting, even if they disagree with one another. I see them hanging out in the lobby together.”

Houston identified Hoover Alexander, owner of Hoover’s Cooking, as one of those who complained. “I have three or four others who can testify about how they were treated in the stakeholder meetings – and it was horrible,” she said.

Troxclair read a letter from Rebecca Melançon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, which says, “I now have 135 local businesses signed up against the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance. Each of these businesses has given permission for me to make their name public. I am not releasing their names now because of boycott threats from (the Workers Defense Project) but will be bringing a complete list to the City Council meeting on Thursday.”

Hayes told Council neither her department nor the Economic Development Department has the resources to devote to setting up the program and doing community outreach to notify businesses about the new ordinance. She said it would take three months to complete a request for proposal.

Hayes noted that the department is currently “excited to begin recruiting” for the 19 executive level vacancies the city now has. She did not say that they were unexcited about the additional workload that the sick leave ordinance would entail, but she did say that she would have to hire an additional three to six temporary employees because of the increased workload.

Flannigan accused Casar of having said that Flannigan’s proposal was somehow related to the ultraconservative Koch brothers, who have reportedly funded a national organization opposing paid sick leave at small businesses. Casar said he has not accused Flannigan of being in league with the Koch brothers. However, he pointed to a story in The Guardian that stated that the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which generally opposes paid sick leave, has received a large amount of funding from the Koch brothers.

Will Newton, executive director of the Texas chapter of NFIB, has said that his group will be pursuing pre-emptive legislation during the next legislative session that would prevent Austin and other cities from requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave.

“It’ll be a priority,” he said in a message on the group’s website that called on businesspeople to urge Council to reject the ordinance.

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