With the Texas Legislature’s 86th session underway, local leaders are weighing how to respond to a bill filed aimed at blocking cities from forcing private employers to provide paid sick leave to workers.

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee met at Municipal Plaza to discuss San Antonio’s role in advocating for its paid sick leave ordinance, which went into effect on Jan. 1 following a 9-2 vote by City Council in October.

Following back-and-forth conversation between those in favor of advocating for the ordinance and those wishing to remain “neutral” while state legislators discuss the bill, there was unanimous agreement that further conversation is needed regarding how local leaders should respond to House Bill 222, which would prohibit municipalities from adopting any ordinance requiring employers to provide paid sick leave.

San Antonio is the second city in Texas to institute a paid sick leave mandate after Austin passed its own in February 2018. Because a state appeals court found Austin’s policy unconstitutional in November, City Government & Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle backed a “watch and see” approach, where discussions continue within the ad hoc committee created to determine how to best implement the ordinance.

While the ordinance went into effect Jan. 1, the requirements of businesses are not effective until August.

“There are legal questions that still have to be resolved, and our local process is still underway and has not been completed,” Coyle said. “Given the realities of these circumstances and the limited impact we would have on the outcome, we should watch and see what happens.”

Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) also were in favor of waiting on the outcome before defending the local ordinance at the state level.

“I fear that taking a loud position in one direction or another imperils the work that my committee is trying to do – that’s the last thing I want to happen,” said Pelaez, a labor attorney, noting that local business owners have refused to participate in planning conversations with the committee. “I promised objectivity, and it is difficult for me to deliver objectivity when we are flying a bright flag in support of one position.”

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who is serving his last term on council, was the only committee member in vocal support of advocating for the paid sick leave ordinance in Austin.

“The people we speak for said, ‘This is the ordinance I want to pass.’ This is a local ordinance, and we have to defend local decision-making,” Saldaña said.

“There will be threats that it will get a low bill number [and come up for discussion near the beginning of the session], just like what happened with [the so-called] sanctuary cities [bill], but that didn’t stop us from putting up our own position and supporting that,” he said, referring to Texas’ controversial immigration law that allows police officers to question a person’s immigration status during a detainment and punishes local law enforcement officers who don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents.

Local paid sick leave ordinances face opposition from top state leaders: in a July letter sent to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said a proposed paid sick leave ordinance in San Antonio would “conflict directly” with State law and again reiterated his stance against paid sick leave before the session began on Jan. 8. Gov. Greg Abbott recently voiced his support for HB 222.

“There was always the backstop that the governor or the courts might stop this bill, but this is what the people said they want,” Saldaña said.

Jolene Garcia, a volunteer with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), attended Wednesday’s meeting, which was not open to public input. She told the Rivard Report that City Council and local leaders need to remember that more than 144,000 residents signed petitions in favor of paid sick leave, and “the action taken at the State Capitol should reflect those people.”

TOP is one of several local organizations that comprise the coalition Working Texans for Paid Sick Leave, which submitted the petition signatures for verification to the City attorney in May.

“They at least should protect our local control. Right now, the State is taking steps to interfere with a lot of local ordinances. If we let them interfere with our ability to pass paid sick, it’s like rolling over to accept other actions that they may be emboldened to take,” Garcia said.

“You definitely don’t have any pull in playing anyone if you lay down, roll over, and play dead.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.