A judge who heard a full day of arguments on both sides of the paid sick leave debate Thursday said he would have a ruling before the end of the month.

San Antonio’s Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance, which would require all employers to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, is set to go into effect Dec. 1.

But a coalition of local business associations and staffing agencies is seeking a temporary injunction to prevent the ordinance from taking effect.

Representing the plaintiffs, attorney Ricardo Cedillo appeared before Judge Peter Sakai, 225th District Court, accompanied by representatives from the Texas attorney general’s office and an attorney for the Texas Retailers Association and the South Texas Merchants Association.

Cedillo argued at length that paid sick leave is a wage by definition and is thus preempted by the Texas Minimum Wage Law. “There are some things the State of Texas says, ‘I reserve for myself,’” Cedillo said. “There is no way to effect the ordinance and the State statute.”

That argument is based on a 2018 ruling by the 3rd Court of Appeals, which said Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance was unconstitutional and violated State minimum wage law. The City of Austin has appealed to the state’s highest court. 

“There’s nothing that makes more sense than to await the decision of the highest court of the land that is going to settle this question once and for all,” Cedillo said.

City of San Antonio outside counsel Barry Snell argued in favor of the ordinance and against the injunction. Snell was accompanied at the defendant’s table by Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Ryan Cox, representing MOVE Texas and the Texas Organizing Project (TOP).

“Our ordinance makes it very clear that it does not require that sick and safe leave be calculated as an increased salary or wages for an employee, so they cannot cash it in. They don’t get to keep it – it’s use-it-or-lose-it,” Snell said. “The Austin court was silent on [that issue].”

It’s that factor, he said, that has led a number of courts around the country to determine paid sick leave is a benefit and not a wage.

Cox’s associate called as evidentiary witnesses two representatives from the two groups who gathered citizen signatures to put the ordinance on the ballot – Alex Birnel, advocacy manager for MOVE Texas Action Fund, and Joleen Garcia, community organizer with the TOP. Birnel and Garcia served on the citizen-led Paid Sick Leave Commission, which recommended changes to the ordinance that were approved by the City Council Oct. 3.

Following a full day of arguments, and noting the number of binders and boxes containing briefs that both sides prepared for the judge’s review, Sakai said he would not be able to make a ruling Thursday, but he promised one before the end of the month.

“I think the urgency is more on the side of the plaintiffs because they don’t want to see the ordinance go into effect,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said outside the courtroom. “If the judge feels he needs more time, to go past December 1, obviously we’re OK with that because our ordinance will go into effect. But clearly, we want a decision made and the decision to be to deny the injunction.”

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Shari Biediger

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