“It’s About Damn Time”

City Council passes first paid sick leave ordinance in the South

At nearly 1am Friday morning, after more than five hours of public testimony, City Council enacted an ordinance that (as of Oct. 1) will require most private businesses in Austin to provide six to eight days of annual paid sick leave to employees. The vote was 9-2, enabling passage on all three readings.

Greg Casar with Work Strong Austin, the coalition that organized public support for the ordinance (Photo courtesy of Work Strong Austin/Facebook)

Hundreds of people packed Council chambers and the City Hall lobby, and hundreds signed up to testify. In overwhelming numbers they spoke in favor of the ordinance as a matter of necessity, equity, and justice. There were also numerous witnesses, including many employers or their representatives, who opposed the ordinance “as written,” as an imposition on employer prerogatives, or because they believed the question had not been given sufficient public airing or review.

The evening testimony began, at about 7:30pm, with José Garza of the Workers Defense Project, telling Council: “Tonight you are on the verge of making history,” by becoming “the first city in the South to ensure that working people have a right to take a day off when they get sick.”

Voting for the ordinance were Council Members Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen, Jimmy Flannigan, Leslie Pool, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter, and Mayor Steve Adler. Voting against were CMs Ora Houston and Ellen Troxclair.

Although the arguments for and against ranged widely through the evening, those opposing the ordinance objected to it as an unnecessary mandate on employers, as potentially endangering the survival of small businesses, or as reducing the number of local jobs. Supporters argued – most doing so from their own working experience – that allowing employees sick leave for various health and family emergencies means healthier workers (and customers), more stable families and workplaces, and is simply a matter of justice.

After several hours of testimony, Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin (the Austin ISD employees' union), stepped to the microphone and described his own career experience as a teacher and union member, and a survivor of cancer. “If it hadn’t been for sick leave,” he told Council, “I don’t know what I would have done or what my family would have done.”

Zarifis cited his father’s small-town family business, which for 40 years “proudly provided sick leave.” He recently asked his sister if that was still the policy. “She says I don’t know why we wouldn’t.” Indeed, that question echoed a common incredulity that so many Austin working people – an estimated 230,000 or more – are not provided paid sick leave at their jobs, as a matter of course.

Concluded Zarifis: “Many decisions have been made from this dais over the last 20 years to benefit business. And it's about damn time that decisions from this dais benefit workers in this city.”

There were some amendments to the original proposal, generated by previous Council discussions, that adjusted the periods of education and enforcement, the proportion of sick days for large and small businesses, and added an annual review of various effects. Alter proposed an amendment, unsuccessfully, that would have granted a year’s exemption to nonprofits.

Near the end of the Council’s discussion, Public Health Director Phillip Huang cited the currently deadly flu season, and reiterated the medical position that “it's clearly good for public health to make it easier for sick people to stay home when they have the flu,” and said the same for food service workers when they have gastrointestinal illnesses, or employees with chronic medical conditions.

Troxclair chided the audience for being disrespectful to opponents of the ordinance, and somewhat bitterly proposed (“I know it’s pointless”) an amendment that would have exempted what she called “microbusinesses” (15 or fewer employees). She was joined only by Houston and Pool (Alter abstained). Houston was similarly worried about “small minority businesses,” acknowledging that her opposition would not be receiving “handclaps and woo-hoos” from the audience.

Following Huang’s testimony, Mayor Adler said he supports the ordinance for three reasons: as a “public health and safety imperative,” because most research shows that the economic impact is minimal or positive, and that along with living wages and health care (each improved by other Council policies), “sick leave is the next thing we need to do.”

Casar, who sponsored and promoted the ordinance over the last several months (with co-sponsors Garza, Kitchen, and Tovo), concluded debate by congratulating and thanking the “unprecedented coalition” that had supported the ordinance and worked to make it happen. “Without your organizing,” he told supporters, “this would never have come to pass. And without your organizing, we will not be able to spread this across the state and eventually across this country.”

In other actions, Council:

• narrowly approved (6-5) the Champion Tract 3 settlement agreement over strenuous opposition of nearby neighborhood associations and CMs Alter and Pool, and in the shadow of potential lawsuits;

• restored most “specialty pay” for Austin police officers (e.g., bilingual, mental health, court time) pending the outcome of resumed meet-and-confer contract negotiations;

• postponed a decision until March 1 on a five-year contract award for technology services to San Franciso-based nonprofit Community Technology Network, after testimony that it would displace a longstanding city relationship with local nonprofit Austin Freenet; and

• welcomed to the dais new City Manager Spencer Cronk, and proclaimed Feb. 15 “Elaine Hart Day” in honor of interim City Manager Hart, who held the office from October 2016 until last week – much longer than anyone had anticipated. Mayor Adler thanked Hart for her service (she returns to her post as Chief Financial Officer) and declared, “There is no more devoted and greater advocate and tireless worker for the city of Austin than Ms. Hart.”

For more on these and other City Council stories, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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