Texas Senate panel advances bill banning cities from adopting sick leave ordinances

The bill would also nullify mandates some local city councils in major Texas cities have already tried to put in place. The measure is now eligible to be taken up by the full Senate.

The Senate Committee on State Affairs listens to testimony on SB 15 at a hearing at the State Capitol. Feb. 28, 2019.

The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee this morning speedily advanced the first bill that’s not dubbed an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott: one that prevents cities from requiring paid sick leave for their employees.

The amended version of Senate Bill 15, which passed the committee with a 5-1 vote after nearly two hours of testimony, would prevent individual cities and counties from adopting local ordinances related to employment leave, paid days off for holidays and, most notably, sick days.

The bill would nullify mandates some local city councils in major Texas cities have already tried to put in place. A priority item for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the bill is now eligible to be taken up by the full Senate.

“Private employment regulations are a statewide issue, not something that political subdivisions should decide,” said the bill’s author, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe. “Senate Bill 15 provides consistency across the state to help businesses continue to grow and to keep patchwork laws that can change in a matter of miles from being put into place.”

The battle lines over the sick leave issue were drawn after Austin passed an ordinance last year requiring the city's employers to offer paid sick leave. Under the mandate — which was blocked by a state appeals court after a coalition of business groups sued — each private employer in the city would’ve been required to allow workers to accrue up to 64 hours of paid sick leave per year. Small businesses with 15 or fewer employees could've offered 48 hours, or six work days. The San Antonio City Council approved a similar ordinance last summer.

Creighton called the ordinances “costly, prohibitive, intrusive and at odds with the Texas Constitution.”

Ordinances such as the ones put into place in Austin and San Antonio drew sharp rebukes from some business leaders and top Republican officials, including Attorney General Ken Paxton — who argued only the state could implement such a law.

And while not dubbed an emergency item by the governor, Abbott assured business leaders weeks ago that the Legislature would take action.

The state Legislature, Abbott said while speaking at a National Federation of Independent Business conference in Austin in mid-February, will “slash through any regulations proposed at the local level that would slow down or hinder small business in the state of Texas.”

Partisan differences were front and center during Thursday’s hearing.

Critics of the ordinance said it’s not the government’s job to set private companies’ employment policies and that the local ordinances put in place could hurt fragile small businesses, especially restaurants and other businesses with large part-time staffs.

“Employers would be forced to bear the cost by decreasing vacation days, decreasing pay, firing employees or hiring less,” said Shelby Sterling, a policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Employees would have less hours and lower wages and the potential to not even be able to get a job.”

Advocates for letting local jurisdictions put sick leave policies in place, however, said sick leave policies are beneficial to all Texans — particularly through a health care lens.

“A policy that allows workers to earn paid sick leave would benefit tens of thousands of workers and their families,” said René Lara, the legislative director for Texas AFL-CIO. “Those policies would also protect each one of us when we’re no longer exposed to sick workers who could not afford to miss work.

“This is an issue that impacts all of us.”

Texas business owners, meanwhile, appeared split on whether they were behind Creighton’s measure.

Nolan Gore, an Austin-based business owner, said he was “philosophically conflicted” when the capital city’s ordinance was first announced. He said he anonymously asked all of his employees if they preferred a raise in the next year or sick leave days. He said more than 60 percent of his employees chose the former.

“I was actually surprised by that … but it was good for me because it let me have a conversation with our team about what they prefer and how they prefer it,” Gore said. “In the end, what I believe is that things like paid sick leave are not what’s best.”

Others, like Adam Orman, who owns an Italian restaurant in Austin, spoke against the bill. During his two minutes of testimony, Orman argued the city utilized an “inclusive process” to put its ordinance in place and that the state shouldn’t override an ordinance voted on by the city’s elected officials.

“We need to act in ways that sustain and grow not just our businesses, but the health of our communities,” Orman said. “Paid sick leave should be the bare minimum businesses offer to keep our employees healthy which, in turn, keeps our communities healthy.”

A few times during the hearing, Republican members of the committee, including state Sens. Joan Huffman, R-Houston and Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, pushed back against those testifying against the measure.

“You can do whatever you want with your business under the bill. You can pay your employees sick leave,” Huffman, who chairs the committee, told Orman. “You think that you should be able to tell the other business owner what they have to do when you can make your own decision?”

“I should absolutely not,” Orman replied. “That local city council should if they were Democratically elected and if there has been a process that included businesses, yes.”

“Just a fundamental difference of opinion here,” Huffman retorted.

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