Southern Cities Are Passing Paid Sick Leave—But Republicans Won’t Let Them Have It

Bryce Covert

San Antonio recently became the 33rd city in the country to pass paid sick leave, but the law may be preempted by the state. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On August 16, the San Anto­nio city coun­cil vot­ed 9 – 2 to pass a paid sick leave ordi­nance that will allow res­i­dents to earn an hour of time off for every 30 hours worked up to six days a year at small employ­ers and eight at larg­er ones. 

The Unit­ed States is alone among 22 wealthy coun­tries in hav­ing no nation­al guar­an­teed paid sick-leave pol­i­cy. As a result, states are left to pass their own laws, and in those like Texas where GOP leg­is­la­tures stand opposed to paid sick leave, it’s up to the cities.

San Anto­nio became the 33rd city in the coun­try to take such a step, and the sec­ond in the South after Austin passed a sim­i­lar law in February.

The San Anto­nio law is sup­posed to go into effect in Jan­u­ary, and Austin’s was sched­uled to go into effect in Octo­ber. But the fate of both laws is up in the air.

The very day after San Antonio’s ordi­nance passed, an appeals court tem­porar­i­ly put Austin’s law on hold in the midst of a law­suit brought by the con­ser­v­a­tive Texas Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Foun­da­tion— a mem­ber of the Koch-backed State Pol­i­cy Net­work — that claims the law vio­lates the Texas Min­i­mum Wage Act.

Even if that law­suit fails, many Repub­li­can mem­bers of the Texas leg­is­la­ture have vowed to pass leg­is­la­tion to block such local pro­gres­sive laws through­out the state. Law­mak­ers are expect­ed to take up broad pre­emp­tion leg­is­la­tion as a top pri­or­i­ty when the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion begins in the new year.

Texas cities have watched the state erase their laws before. After he took office in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to pre­empt cities’ abil­i­ty to pass their own ordi­nances. In 2017 he explained this deci­sion would con­tin­ue our lega­cy of eco­nom­ic free­dom” and lim­it the abil­i­ty of cities to Cal­i­for­nia-ize the great state of Texas.” In 2015, the state blocked cities from reg­u­lat­ing oil and gas drilling activ­i­ty, includ­ing frack­ing, and it has also banned local laws that would cre­ate sanc­tu­ary cities.

It’s a grow­ing trend in leg­is­la­tures con­trolled by Repub­li­cans. At least 25 states have passed pre­emp­tion laws that block cities from rais­ing the min­i­mum wage, and 20 have banned cities from insti­tut­ing paid sick leave. The major­i­ty of these laws have been enact­ed since 2013 and advo­cates for high­er work­place stan­dards say the trend is only accel­er­at­ing.

Texas advo­cates for paid sick leave haven’t giv­en up hope, how­ev­er. They plan to wield the sheer amount of pop­u­lar sup­port for these ordi­nances in their favor and against the state politi­cians who block them. Our state lead­er­ship is out of touch with what the major­i­ty of Tex­ans believe and want for their com­mu­ni­ties,” says Michelle Trem­il­lo, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Texas Orga­niz­ing Project, a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing group behind the paid sick leave ordinance.

Two years ago, the Texas Orga­niz­ing Project began sur­vey­ing work­ing fam­i­lies in San Anto­nio about what issues were most impor­tant to them and what would most improve their lives. It was very clear…that issues address­ing eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty were at the very top of the list,” Trem­il­lo says. Num­ber one was access to jobs that pay well, but in Texas only the state can raise the min­i­mum wage, fol­lowed by ben­e­fits and the abil­i­ty to get paid time off for ill­ness, under­stand­able since an esti­mat­ed 350,000 city res­i­dents don’t have access to paid sick days.

Advo­cates also eager­ly watched what hap­pened in Austin. It just made sense that we would fig­ure out how to make that hap­pen in San Anto­nio as well,” Trem­il­lo says.

Her group and oth­ers decid­ed to take the issue direct­ly to city res­i­dents. In San Anto­nio, any­one can put an issue before the city coun­cil by col­lect­ing sig­na­tures from 10 per­cent of the eli­gi­ble vot­ing pop­u­la­tion in the pre­vi­ous munic­i­pal elec­tion. If they suc­ceed, the city coun­cil can either decide to vote on the top­ic direct­ly or reject it, thus send­ing it to the bal­lot for vot­ers to weigh in on. To hit the 10 per­cent require­ment, paid sick leave advo­cates need­ed to col­lect at least 70,000 sig­na­tures to force the issue.

With­in ten weeks they man­aged to col­lect more than dou­ble that num­ber, even­tu­al­ly receiv­ing more than 144,000. The response was force­ful. Peo­ple want­ed to sign it,” Trem­il­lo says. Peo­ple under­stand imme­di­ate­ly how impor­tant that basic right is, it is a basic right to take care of your­self and your family.”

It was the first time in Rey Saldaña’s sev­en years on the city coun­cil that he saw any issue get above the 70,000-signature thresh­old, he says. It was an easy sell, eas­i­er than many folks had actu­al­ly thought,” he says. Sur­prised at the lev­el of sup­port behind the issue, the may­or and Saldaña’s fel­low coun­cil mem­bers decid­ed to take it up and pass the ordi­nance themselves.

Sal­daña, who sup­port­ed paid sick leave from the begin­ning, chalks the sup­port up to the fact that so many peo­ple in the city work in the ser­vice indus­try where paid sick day are uncom­mon. Many of them know what it feels like to have to make deci­sions between going in sick or tak­ing a pay cut that week,” he says. “[But] they didn’t real­ize that they had that pow­er to try to ask the gov­ern­ment to step in and inter­vene on some of the pres­sures they have in life.”

That sup­port, he believes, will make it hard for state law­mak­ers to reverse the progress made. The time is going to expire on the state of Texas’s abil­i­ty to ignore that issue,” he says.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly we have a state lead­er­ship that is deter­mined to inter­fere with our cities’ abil­i­ty to do what’s best for their cit­i­zens,” Trem­il­lo says. We have a state lead­er­ship that is not at all con­cerned about improv­ing con­di­tions for work­ing people.”

The state has turned its back on work­ing Tex­ans and turned its back on solu­tions,” Sal­daña agrees. It does not sur­prise the city of San Anto­nio, just like it does not sur­prise Austin or Dal­las or Hous­ton, that the state wants to step in and keep cities from inno­vat­ing and apply­ing rules and laws that sup­port the work­ing men and women who prop up our economies.”

But that only adds urgency to the cam­paign to pro­tect the laws that cities have passed on their own. Advo­cates pledge to keep up the momen­tum no mat­ter what the state does. We will con­tin­ue to fight at the city lev­el and at the state lev­el for what peo­ple real­ly need and want,” Trem­il­lo says.

And she notes that San Antonio’s expe­ri­ence, with over a hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple voic­ing their sup­port, shows that the state is up against a swell of pop­u­lar sup­port. These are large num­bers of vot­ers and peo­ple in our com­mu­ni­ty who are demand­ing improve­ments to work­ing con­di­tions,” she says. I think our num­bers are only going to get big­ger. I think peo­ple are going to stand up against our state lead­er­ship… We’ll con­tin­ue to increase the num­ber of peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing in our democracy.”

She adds, They should stay out of inter­fer­ing with what our cities are doing and they should start lis­ten­ing to the needs of reg­u­lar Texans.”

Bryce Covert, a con­tribut­ing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has writ­ten for The New Repub­lic, The Nation, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the New York Dai­ly News, New York Mag­a­zine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Excep­tion­al Mer­it in Media Award from the Nation­al Women’s Polit­i­cal Caucus.
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