Point Austin: Sick and Tired

Council moves toward commonsense ordinance, despite business resistance

Point Austin: Sick and Tired

"An employer shall grant an employee one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked for the employer." That's the fundamental provision of the "paid sick time" ordinance that will come before City Council next week – what would seem to be an unremarkable (and quite limited) accommodation for the undeniable fact that human beings occasionally fall ill. As the Chronicle's Mary Tuma reported earlier this year, the Texas flu season has been especially harsh, with more cases than usual statewide and in Travis County.

Maybe the researchers can also look into whether people really do get sick.

That was early January. Last week, KTBC-TV updated, "The flu has already killed almost 2,900 Texans, 28 of them in Travis County," while noting that those numbers are already out of date. A Feb. 5 report from the Austin Public Health Office adds another local death, and notes that statewide, "the number of patient visits due to influenza-like illness is around 14%."

If you're on the job, do you want those folks coming into the office or the restaurant because they can't afford to go a day without a paycheck? If you're feeling the symptoms of "influenza-like illness," should you feel free to visit your doctor for a checkup without paying for it twice – with lost wages as well as a co-pay (if you're lucky enough to have insurance)?

The answers to those questions seem so obvious that it's alarming to learn that more than 200,000 workers in Austin (nearly 40% of the workforce) do not have ready access to paid sick time. As the proposed ordinance summarizes, denying it "is unjust, is detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the City; contributes to employee turnover and unemployment, and harms the local economy."

Without Further Delay

I didn't expect much resistance to such a rational, commonsense policy. Indeed last September, Council easily approved the resolution that directed staff research similar policies and engage local stakeholders on all sides to draft a policy that would fit Austin while following the disparate example of 33 cities, eight states, and 160 countries in providing paid sick time.

Based on a Feb. 6 work session, Council still seems inclined to approve the ordinance, perhaps after some amendments. But last week both the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the mini-chamber that is the Austin Independent Business Alliance announced their opposition. The AIBA said their membership opposes the ordinance "as written" – without suggesting changes, but falling back on sports metaphors: "The health and well being of the team is important. But the team is the best source for business benefits, not local government." (That is, workers should hold their contagious breath until "the team" sees fit to deliver on paid sick time.)

The cagier GACC – which has been involved in the process as a stakeholder since Labor Day – says it just wants more time: at least 90 days for an "independent study" of the economic impact. (Maybe the researchers can also look into whether people really do get sick.) You can translate the Chamber's "unnecessarily rushed" as follows: "If we delay this long enough, we can take it to the 2019 Legislature and kill it in the cradle."

If the Chamber wants to save time, they could read the final statistics line of Dr. William Tierney's (Dell Medical School) letter to Council, which summarizes the relevant research: "Companies that provided paid sick leave ... saved their employers between $630 million and $1.88 billion in 2017 in work hours lost to influenza."

An Earned Right

The shadow of the Lege was apparent in Tuesday's Council discussion, with some members suggesting that paid sick time should obviously apply statewide and others anticipating that if Austin moves forward, retribution is certain. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that however the Lege reacts, Austin can set an example. Greg Casar, who's been leading the work on the ordinance, said the city shouldn't let the threat of legislative reaction "keep us from doing good." Certainly plenty of businesses – large and small, Parkside to Stratus – have also expressed support for the measure.

Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen are also sponsors, and the measure will probably pass, although Ora Houston said she expects to move a postponement, and there might be one or two other votes in opposition. A few scheduling, part-time proration, and enforcement details remain to be considered, but the vote comes down to whether council members support a policy that is cost-effective, rational, and just.

In recent years I've been fortunate enough to do the kind of salary work for which "paid sick leave" is essentially reflexive, but early on I worked plenty of factory or retail jobs in which lost time – for any reason, including emergencies – meant lost pay. Bosses (or "team coaches," if you prefer) presume their own incomes keep flowing whether they're on the job or home in bed. Workers who generate that income along with their own deserve the same consideration, by right.

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paid sick leave, Greg Casar, Steve Adler, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen, Ora Houston

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