San Antonio passes paid sick leave ordinance, joining Austin in fight against top Texas Republicans

A similar measure passed by Austin earlier this year is tied up in court. And dozens of Republican state lawmakers have lined up against the ordinance.

San Antonio is the second-largest city in Texas.  Lotus Carroll

The San Antonio City Council passed a new paid sick leave ordinance Thursday — but the local rule may well die either in the courts or on the floor of the state Legislature before it goes into effect next year.

The council voted 9-2 to allow San Antonio workers to accrue up to 64 hours of paid sick leave each year, sparking a wave of applause so loud the mayor had to quiet the room. In doing so, San Antonio became the second major Texas city to pass such an ordinance. Austin passed its own ordinance in February and drew quick, sharp rebukes from prominent state conservatives.

Advocates praise the measure as a boon for workers who need days off to care for themselves or for sick children. Opponents fret that the as yet-untold financial impact of the new ordinance will be devastating for small-business owners who already have to “count every chip in the bowl and napkin on the table,” as Councilman Greg Brockhouse put it.

Just hours after Austin passed the ordinance in February, state Rep. Paul Workman, an Austin Republican, pledged that he would file a bill overturning it “on the first day possible.” And the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation sued over the ordinance in April, drawing support days later from Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton. Last week, 29 Republican state lawmakers — led by state Sen. Donna Campbell, who represents a San Antonio-area district — signed onto the lawsuit, writing that the ordinance places businesses “at a competitive disadvantage.”

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That lawsuit argues that the paid sick leave ordinance violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act because it forces employers to pay workers minimum wage for hours not actually worked. An Austin-based appeals court is now weighing whether to block the ordinance before it goes into effect later this fall.

That widespread Republican opposition to Austin’s ordinance is all but certain to extend to San Antonio’s measure. Paxton’s office warned San Antonio city leaders not to follow Austin’s example, writing in a letter last month that “no matter the Council’s decision or the result of any ballot initiative, Texas law pre-empts a municipal paid sick leave ordinance.”

If the court challenge to Austin's ordinance is successful, San Antonio's will likely die, too.

"I don't anticipate the San Antonio ordinance to ever go into effect," said Rob Henneke, general counsel for TPPF.

San Antonio City Councilman Manny Pelaez, a lawyer who has worked on employment issues, agreed with that prediction, though he voted for the ordinance anyway.

“It’s my formal, professional opinion that this is preempted by state law… The [Texas] Supreme Court is going to invalidate a San Antonio municipal paid sick leave ordinance. And if they don’t, the Legislature will do it for them,” Pelaez said. “I believe this is dead on arrival in Austin.”

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Neither city’s ordinance has yet taken effect, and there is almost certain to be movement before the time comes. San Antonio’s effective date is Jan. 1, 2019; Austin’s measure is set to take effect Oct. 1.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg voted for the ordinance, calling it “good for business and good for families.” Nirenberg said he expects the Legislature to resolve the issue in the upcoming session, “but city council does not have the luxury of waiting.”

The sick leave issue came to the San Antonio City Council via petition; more than 70,000 city-validated signatures were gathered. Some of that activism was visible at the council meeting Thursday, with a flood of paid sick leave supporters clad in matching green Texas Organizing Project T-shirts. Supporters, and some council members themselves, shared personal and sometimes tearful stories about what the ordinance would mean for San Antonio families — such as a father who lost a construction job when he got sick and a mother who had to choose between caring for her daughter and bringing home a paycheck.

“Earned paid sick leave allows families to care for their health and make ends meet,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, minutes before voting in favor.

Also in attendance were members of the city’s business community, which has overwhelmingly opposed the ordinance. Councilman Clayton Perry, who voted no, pointed out that there has not yet been a formal study of the measure’s projected economic impacts on the city.

“We just don’t have the data and don’t have the facts,” Perry said before voting.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation and Paul Workman have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.