District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez hosts a zoning town hall to discuss how the City of San Antonio Development Services Department processes zoning requests at the North Education Center on Feb. 26, 2019.
District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez chairs the City Council's ad hoc committee on paid sick leave. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The City Council’s committee charged with revising the paid sick leave ordinance met Tuesday for the first time since a citizen-led commission completed its review of the law, deciding it needed more time to study the draft before the full council votes on the revamped ordinance in October.

The five-member ad hoc committee, which is chaired by Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8),  heard from four proponents of the ordinance and a University of Washington researcher, Jennifer Romich, who studied the City of Seattle’s ordinance a year after it was passed in 2012.

Scott McAninch, CEO of The Nonprofit Council, which represents 200 nonprofits in San Antonio, said both Habitat For Humanity and Avance have submitted a letter to the committee requesting clarification on the ordinance. And representatives of the organizations that led the petition drive for the ordinance urged them to affirm the voices of the people and the democratic process.

The five council members also heard from Paid Sick Leave Commission Chair Danielle Hargrove, who briefly outlined the panel’s primary recommendations born of its six months of review.

Pelaez said he wanted to hear more about the impact on employers if the recommended revisions are approved. He reminded the committee that Mayor Ron Nirenberg had asked the ad hoc committee’s Council members to “explicitly target business input, and seek data and analysis regarding the impact of the ordinance.”

A draft of the ordinance is scheduled to be discussed by the full City Council on Sept. 19, with public forums to be held Sept. 23 and Sept. 25, and forwarded to City Council for action at its Oct. 3 meeting.

The timeline is being driven by pending litigation that was put on hold until Nov. 7 to give the commission and the City more time to revise the ordinance, which the Council adopted in August 2018 as it was written in an initiative petition.

“Your process has to finish,” Deputy City Attorney Ed Guzman told the ad hoc committee. “Because if you don’t finish, then what’s going to get litigated is what’s currently on the books, and we’ve already addressed why that’s not a good thing for us.”

In addition to Pelaez, the committee comprises Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3), Ana Sandoval (D7), Robert Treviño (D1), and Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6).

“I’m feeling pretty good today because I think that our commission has worked hard,” Hargrove said in her opening remarks. “I think we’ve got a good ordinance for you to consider.”

The commission’s primary recommendations for revising the ordinance, which the commission is calling the Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance, include a focus on public health so that it is legally defensible and eliminating employer “size” as a determining factor in how the ordinance is applied.

That includes mandating the same minimum number of accrual hours for all employers, no matter how many workers they employ, and requiring implementation for all employers starting Dec. 1, rather than delaying the start date to 2021 for business with fewer than five employees.

Treviño and Sandoval agreed with Pelaez that they would like more time to study the revisions. “I think the public would certainly appreciate us taking that time to really dive into some of these issues,” Treviño said. “In terms of the level of responsibility we have, the expectations are very high on this.”

Sandoval said she wanted more time to discuss the 60-day limit for workers to file employer violation complaints with Metro Health and the 180-day employer-controlled probationary term grandfathered under the ordinance.

Both Sandoval and Havrda felt the 60-day time limit was too tight and recommended extending it to a year or more. Havrda also challenged the rule allowing employers to request verification when an employee requests more than three days of paid sick leave and cited the example of a domestic violence victim who may not be able to provide proof.

Hargrove explained that in the case of domestic violence, the ordinance does not stipulate the kinds of verification that is required; stating the need for time off under the ordinance is enough. She said Metro Health will provide guidance for employers and employees regarding documentation, such as a police report, but the employer cannot mandate what should be provided.

Viagran asked about the minimum annual number of sick leave hours an employer is required to provide, set by the commission at 56, compared to what is required by other cities with paid sick leave ordinances.

The commission’s research found that while Seattle has no base number of hours, New York and San Francisco require 40, and Minneapolis and Los Angeles mandate 48.

With guidance from the City Attorney’s office, the commission has eyed legal challenges to similar paid sick leave ordinances in Austin and Dallas when revising the San Antonio ordinance. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in July against the City of San Antonio over its ordinance also filed an amicus brief in a case against the City of Dallas. That brief, Guzman said, cites an economic impact study by a Trinity University professor.

Another such study commissioned by the City’s Economic Development Department is being conducted by an economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger. That report will be presented at the council’s Sept. 19 meeting.

Pelaez requested that the next meeting of the ad hoc committee include a presentation on the ordinance’s impact on business. “I want to make sure we check off all the boxes for our homework on this committee,” Pelaez said.

However, he’s optimistic that the San Antonio ordinance will stand up in court.

“A year ago, I made comments from the dais, predicting we’d be sued on the basis of this violating the Texas Constitution and possibly the labor code,” Pelaez said. “I think you guys have solved a lot of those problems with your recommendations.”

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