The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Slaves for Rent

Sick pay lawsuit confirms what bosses think of workers

By Michael King, May 4, 2018, News

When I saw the editors' footnote last week announcing the incipient return of "Point Austin," I realized I'd better start climbing out of my post-knee-surgery fog and start catching up on the local news. The note did constitute an upgrade from its predecessor – "Point Austin will be out to lunch for the next few weeks" – although I'm sure there are plenty of Chronicle readers who have long concluded that I'm out to lunch. So it goes.

What with rehab and opioids, I'm not yet entirely up to speed, but I'm doing what I can to supply a little help to our small News crew. In more personal terms, I've been on paid medical leave for just about three weeks, and at least for a while I'll be working less than full time, while receiving my full-time salary.

I'm recounting all this because my incremental return to work coincides with a lawsuit filed by the Texas Association of Business, the National Federation of Independent Business, and a cabal of temp-staffing companies (all paragons of employee relations, no doubt) against the City of Austin. This deep-pocketed employers' group – receiving legal and rhetorical reinforcement from Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, various GOP legislators, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation – are determined to overturn City Council's recent approval of a paid sick leave ordinance, which would (beginning in October) enable more than 200,000 local workers to accrue paid sick time (at most, eight days annually) to be used for illness and family emergencies.

"What's next?" the bosses erupted. "Living wages!?!"

Abominations of Equity

My favorite response was from Paxton, who raged, "The Austin City Council's disdain and blatant disregard for the rule of law ... must be stopped." Our indicted A.G. is undeniably an expert on disdain and disregard for the rule of law.

Work Strong Austin – the coalition of worker and social service groups that successfully organized for the ordinance – released a statement describing the lawsuit as "frivolous, cowardly, desperate, and shameful." I appreciate the understatement, but the initial legal pleading is also nicely revelatory of the shamelessness of the bosses' arguments. Not content to reject the notion that employees are human beings with lives and families rather than automatons with on-off switches, the bosses argue that paid sick time amounts to a disguised increase in the minimum wage – or as they see it, "above the minimum-wage ceiling as defined in Texas law." (Makes one wonder if the Lege has ever contemplated a "ceiling" on profits in order to prioritize livable wages – inconceivable.)

That's an obviously compounded outrage – not only do these malcontents expect their employers to provide to workers time-privileges they take for granted for themselves, they expect those same employers to pay them for an occasional sick day. As an argument, it was equally unconvincing when made by Ebenezer Scrooge in response to Bob Cratchit's request for a single paid day off, on Christmas: "It's a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every 25th of December."

The other arguments are equally laughable. Requiring employers to maintain records of accrued sick leave would mandate unconstitutional "searches and seizures"; tracking all this information would place an intolerable burden on employers such as these temp-staffing companies – whose entire business model is founded upon relieving their clients of the burdens of tracking, maintaining, and providing any benefits to their rent-a-workers.

Users and Used

My Chronicle job – as a longtime salaried employee with unpredictable and often extended hours – is not comparable to the sorts of employment addressed in the ordinance. But even in our precarious news business, there has never been any question that when I needed health care – incidental or extensive – that I should take the time I need, keep contagion out of the office, and accept the benefits that rightly belong to working people who contribute their lives and labor to a common purpose and financial end. That's the real complaint of these plaintiff companies – that the sick pay ordinance serves to erode, in even a very minor way, the absolute control and unquestioned authority they hold over their "human resources."

Consider these temp-staffing companies, institutions based on the ruthless principle that working people are fungible commodities to be rented out by the day. Their pleading imagines the horrifying prospect of a temp, called for a new gig, announcing he is ill and taking a paid sick day. What effrontery! – and about as likely as these pompous, billionaire-funded TPPF attorneys, who drafted this nonsense, looking in the mirror and admitting to themselves, "I should be ashamed I'm getting paid for generating this utter bullshit."

It wasn't too long ago that most working people understood that being rented for daily wages instead of being owned for nothing wasn't a tremendous step forward for human liberation, if it didn't mean more control over your life and working conditions. That precious knowledge has largely been suppressed. It's about time we fight to get it back.

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