A majority of the Paid Sick Leave Commission is open to discussing and recommending changes to the law that could limit the number of workers who are eligible for the benefit.

In a meeting Wednesday, the commission tasked with reviewing and refining the paid sick leave ordinance discussed whether the law as written, one that covers all San Antonio employees, will be what they recommend to the City Council’s ad hoc paid sick leave committee come September.

The topic arose at the end of a meeting during which the subcommittees reported on their work and debated various scenarios for how paid sick leave would be used and monitored. Commission members – who are hourly-wage workers, business owners, and labor advocates – serve on five subcommittees focused on issues related to definitions of language used in the ordinance, compliance, legal considerations, research and best practices, and execution.

Led by Chairwoman Danielle Hargrove, the discussion began with Hargrove polling the commission members on their views concerning the commission’s willingness to recommend changes to the ordinance that would limit the number of employees who can earn paid sick leave or exempt employers with a certain number of employees.

Those recommendations could come out of the members’ input and from research the commission is currently conducting by looking at other cities that have enacted paid sick leave laws.

“From my perspective, if an ordinance that goes through our committee and we decide that it should not apply to ‘this’ category or ‘this’ employer or ‘this’ group of people, [based on what] that research might tell us, is it your intention that every person in the city of San Antonio get paid sick leave, or is it your understanding that whatever our ordinance looks like is going to be based upon what the evidence suggests it should be so we can get it passed?” Hargrove asked.

Hargrove, an attorney and dispute resolution professional, asked the 11 commission members present to respond one by one in an informal tally of opinions. The issue was not put to a vote because it was not included in the meeting agenda.

But Hargrove pressed the issue, saying she wanted the commission to be clear about the goal it is working toward. “If not, I want to know that now,” she said. “I just want to manage expectations about what being faithful to the ordinance means.”

“That would leave a huge number of employees out of receiving paid sick leave,” said Joleen Garcia organizer for the Texas Organizing Project, the group whose petition effort led to the ordinance’s passage. “So, the impact would be greatly diminished, and we would be taking paid sick leave from a large portion.”

She also reminded the commission that the ordinance as written delays implementation until 2021 for small businesses with five or fewer employees.

Business owners Kausi Subramaniam and Bob Livar and attorney Sasha Begum stated that they were willing to consider recommended changes to the ordinance that might change who is eligible for the benefit. UT Health San Antonio Associate Professor Adelita Cantu said that if the research supported that recommendation, she would also back it.

Al Arreola, president and CEO of the Southside San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, agreed as well, saying, “It is my understanding we are here to correct an unconstitutional ordinance.”

Small business owner Christine Arredondo said the commission should consider how San Antonio is different and why it is home to so many small businesses, some in operation for over 100 years.

“We have to take into consideration there are going to be many small businesses adversely affected and, in many cases, not able to remain open because they are not able to pay sick leave,” Arredondo said. “This is not an ordinance written for San Antonio. If it was, we wouldn’t be here crafting something that fits San Antonio. It could make San Antonio better, clearly, but if it hurts small business, we should take that into consideration.”

Diane Sanchez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, echoed that sentiment and said the research now being done is an opportunity to bring best practices to the process. Reverend C.J. Littlefield said he felt the commission’s goal should be to seek ways to help San Antonio as a whole.

However, Alex Birnel, advocacy manager for Move Texas, said that while he supports making the ordinance more effective for both employees and employers, he was not comfortable with changes that altered the overall numbers of people who are eligible for paid sick leave.

“If we’re talking about small business owners, we’re really talking about the constituency of folks who signed the petition,” Birnel said, adding that none of the legal challenges to the similarly written Austin and Dallas ordinances have been about the adverse economic impact to those cities or business. “We need to focus on getting the ordinance across the finish line.”

Linda Chavez-Thompson, a retired union leader, said she was willing to listen, but would not say if she was for or against any recommendations until she understands how it will affect the people who need to be protected.

Hargrove said she is neutral on the issue but believes that paid sick leave would benefit San Antonio. “In general, I think we all think paid sick leave is a good thing,” she said. “The question is how do we do it such that we consider all perspectives and minimize adverse impacts and revised it with full stakeholder support. The role I am in as a mediator. You cannot expect to get a collaborative effort if only your side prevails.”

Hargrove concluded the discussion by reminding the commission that the City is the client and the City has been sued by a coalition of business owners and associations over the ordinance.

After the meeting, Hargrove told the Rivard Report that she wanted everyone’s opinions on the matter to be on the record as the group works toward a self-imposed deadline to provide recommendations to the City Council.

Those recommendations will need to be agreed upon by a majority of the commission before being presented.

“When I look at the charge that was given by the mayor, it was full stakeholder support,” Hargrove said. “That’s why at the last meeting I said some of you think we were charged with working around an existing ordinance and teeter-tottering with it … and others of us understood we could make whatever changes we needed to make … to be legally enforceable.”

Wednesday’s poll of the commission members shows the majority are willing to do the latter, she said.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.