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Austin may be getting a new department to oversee labor rights laws

Friday, June 29, 2018 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

City Council members voted Thursday to ask the city manager to look into creating a new department to oversee its labor rights laws – including rules that guarantee rest breaks for construction workers and mandate paid sick leave for private employees.

These laws are currently overseen by at least two departments – the Code Department and the Human Resources Department.

“You have multiple departments trying to both handle internal city operations and external labor and civil rights protections, and it can lead to, in my view, a lack of focus,” said Council Member Greg Casar, one of the item’s sponsors.

Casar said that can also lead to a lack of enforcement. For example, he pointed to the city’s fair chance hiring law, which prohibits private employers from considering a job applicant’s criminal history until the final stage of hiring. In March, KUT and the Austin Monitor revealed that the city had failed to enforce the two-year-old law.

Thursday’s vote could result in the city creating either a civil rights or labor standards office. Council members passed a measure asking City Manager Spencer Cronk to evaluate how cities with similar laws implement and enforce them.

The policy directive cited cities like Seattle, Minneapolis and Flagstaff, Arizona, which have civil rights or labor standards departments that oversee labor rights rules. Seattle opened a Labor Standards Office within its Civil Rights Unit in 2015. Two years later, the department had grown so much, it sectioned off and became its own department.

Casar said the vote was also in response to what he sees as Austin’s greater responsibility to enforce its own civil rights laws.

“It’s become so much more important for cities to focus on protecting peoples’ labor rights and civil rights when other levels of government want to do the opposite,” he said.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo: Council Member Greg Casar speaks to the crowd during a rally for a paid sick leave ordinance, at City Hall in February. The measure passed 9-2. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon /KUT.

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