Showdown in Austin Over Government Mandated Paid Sick Leave

Business groups are raising concerns about a proposal in Austin aimed at requiring employers in the city to provide paid sick leave for workers. It’s a discussion that’s playing out before the Austin City Council. 

The idea is in its preliminary stages but seems on track for a vote next year. That’s why those on both sides of the debate are hoping for a robust discussion that includes the concerns of business leaders as well as workers’ rights advocates.

The city council in September unanimously voted to direct their staff to gather feedback from the community “that might inform a future paid sick days policy for private employers,” per the city’s website. 

Among the city council’s reasons for considering a paid sick leave policy for businesses:

  • Low-income workers are significantly less likely to have paid sick time than other members of the workforce
  • Approximately 37% of workers in the City of Austin lack paid sick time
  • Latino and African-American workers are less likely to have paid sick time than workers in any other racial or ethnic group
  • Paid sick time can result in reduced worker turnover for employers
  • 33 cities and eight states have passed paid sick leave policies

Jose Garza, Executive Director of the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based non-profit, promoted the idea in an email to supporters of the group he leads. 

"Working families in Austin need your help. Austin City Council will be considering a resolution to kick off the stakeholder process for an earned paid sick leave policy for all Austin workers," Garza said. "All workers, regardless of what kind of job they do or how much they earn, should be able to care for themselves or a loved one."

“Unfortunately, approximately 223,000 Austin workers – 37 percent of the total workforce – are at risk of losing wages or being fired if they follow doctor’s orders when they or a family member is ill," he said. 

But business interests including the Associated General Contractors representing commercial construction firms are concerned about where the discussion is headed. The group encouraged business owners to speak up on the city’s website and share concerns with the city’s staff. 

“The Austin AGC believes that the decision whether to offer paid sick leave is best left up to employers as part of their efforts to recruit a workforce,” said Phil Thoden, local AGC President and CEO.

The trade group acknowledged the city council is likely to move forward with some form of this proposal in 2018. So, the AGC asked a few questions including whether the new requirement will "apply to construction companies based in Austin, or will it apply to any construction worker on an Austin jobsite?”

“The construction workforce is nomadic, moving regularly from jobsite to jobsite as needed on a daily, weekly or longer basis," AGC said. "This creates challenging and time-consuming HR oversight for employers trying to account for accrued sicktime."

The group also wants to know whether prime contractors will be liable for any violations committed by their subcontractors.

"Determining whether a subcontractor is abiding by this sick leave policy is impossible for prime and upper-tier contractors," AGC said. "A prime contractor has no available means to determine whether or not a subcontractor happens to be working for that prime contractor at the time of the sick leave request. Under carryover provisions of a sick leave policy, subcontractor violations can occur years after the relationship between subcontractor and prime contractor has ended. There needs to be a ‘safe harbor’ for prime contractors to protect them from any wrongdoing on the part of a subcontractor.”   

The full list of AGC’s initial concerns can be found here

And here’s the city’s “Speak up” website, where you can let the local government know what you think.

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