Austin’s New Sick Leave Law Faces Preemption Threat

Austin’s New Sick Leave Law Faces Preemption Threat

The City Council in Austin, Texas voted last week to approve a new ordinance requiring employers in the city to provide paid sick leave to their employees, the Texas Tribune reported:

At a meeting where over 200 people came to testify — a majority of them supporting the ordinance — the council voted 9-2 to implement the policy. But hours after the rule was passed, state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, sounded off against the bill, saying the ordinance is “declaring war” on small private businesses.

The new rule mandated that private employers allow their workers to accrue up to 64 hours, or eight days, of paid sick leave per year. Small businesses with 15 or fewer employees could have paid sick days up to 48 hours, or six work days. The passed ordinance is scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1, making Austin the first Texas city to pass a paid sick-day ordinance.

Workman and other Republicans in the state legislature have already promised to pass legislation at the state level to prevent Austin’s policy from going into effect. This type of preemption legislation has been used in other states with conservative governments to stop liberal cities from enacting their own local employment laws: In the past year, Indiana banned cities from implementing “ban-the-box” laws, Missouri passed a preemption law to prevent cities like St. Louis from legislating higher minimum wages, and a Florida court found that a minimum wage increase in Miami Beach was preempted by state law.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott expressed interest last year in passing a similar law to throttle progressive local legislation, and the state already bars cities from raising the minimum wage, introducing rent controls, or instituting some forms of inclusionary zoning, CityLab‘s Sarah Holder adds.

In passing a paid sick leave mandate, Austin joins 30 other cities, two counties, and nine states (including most recently Maryland) that have done so. It is not only the first city in Texas to join this wave, but the first in the American South, Justin Miller observes at the American Prospect. Given the Republican Party’s overwhelming dominance of the state legislature, preemption of the Austin ordinance seems likely, Jack Craver at the left-leaning Texas Observer believes the state could be seeing the start of a broader labor movement:

Business groups have promised that they will try to overturn the ordinance next year at the Texas Legislature, which delights in striking down policies adopted by cities in general and Austin in particular. But those pushing the paid sick campaign say they’re eager to have a fight over the matter at the state level and force Republicans to justify killing a popular policy. … By activating low-income workers, an aggressive statewide push by labor groups for paid sick leave would yield political dividends even in the likely event that it is resisted by other city governments or stymied at the Legislature.

Indeed, members of the Dallas City Council are now mulling a similar ordinance. Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, who led the push to pass the bill in his city, tells CityLab that public opinion and politics are on his side, while Jessica Milli, an analyst from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research,

Corporate interests may, too, come around. Jessica Milli, an analyst from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research told the Texas Observer that the law “will actually save Austin employers around $4.5 million due to both lower turnover and the fact that most workers will use only a few days of leave annually.” Studies have found that sick leave mandates in other states and cities have had negligible negative impacts on businesses and don’t increase unemployment as critics claim. Large companies have also been under increasing pressure to add or expand sick leave policies voluntarily, such as Starbucks, which rolled out this benefit for all store employees last month.