Texas’ highest court has declined to consider an appeal on last year’s ruling that said Austin’s paid sick leave law is unconstitutional. The ruling will keep the City of Austin from enforcing the law it passed in 2018, putting a similar ordinance in San Antonio into jeopardy.

Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court denied a petition to review a 3rd Court of Appeals ruling that Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act. Those laws and the minimum amount of paid time off are set by the Texas Legislature, and cannot be superseded by municipal governments.

The ruling comes as health officials continue to recommend people stay home and practice social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which already has killed 1,836 statewide as of Monday. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal, and the City of San Antonio has not determined its next move.

San Antonio City Council passed a law similar to Austin’s in October 2019, mandating paid sick leave for all part-time and full-time employees – one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. After a council-appointed commission had spent months revising the original mandate, the Safe and Sick Leave Ordinance was set to take effect in December 2019.

But the commission’s revisions intended to bolster the ordinance against legal challenges didn’t stop a coalition of business groups from pursuing a lawsuit originally filed July 15, 2019. In late November, a state district court judge granted the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction and set a trial date of Sept. 21, 2020, expecting the Supreme Court to consider an appeal on the Austin ordinance prior to that.

“The Texas Supreme Court’s decision to decline hearing the City of Austin’s Paid Sick Leave case does not directly nullify San Antonio’s ordinance,” said City Attorney Andy Segovia in an emailed statement on Monday. “We will discuss next steps with City Council.”

Several civil rights groups pushed the City Council to approve the paid sick leave measure, which it initially passed in August 2018, and have remained at the forefront as the ordinance has come up against challenges.

In recent weeks, community organizer Alex Birnel, an advocacy manager at MOVE Texas, pushed for the ordinance as COVID-19 cases began to climb in San Antonio. In an opinion piece published by the Rivard Report, Birnel wrote, “Paid sick leave, many (including Donald Trump) are realizing, is the exact mechanism missing to keep workers at home when sick. If workers put themselves at risk because they need to pay the bills, they put others at risk.”

Last Friday, after the Supreme Court released its orders, attorney Ricardo Cedillo, who represented the coalition of business groups, said the ruling against Austin “means the City [of San Antonio’s] ordinance is equally unconstitutional. We win.”

But City attorneys have maintained that the San Antonio ordinance is different from Austin’s – under the Fair Labor Standards Act, sick leave is a benefit and not compensation. And concern for public health is what guided the Paid Sick Leave Commission and the revisions it suggested, Chairwoman Danielle Hargrove said at the time the commission made its recommendations.

In an economic impact study on paid sick leave laws presented to the Council in September, economists Steve Nivin and Belinda Roman estimated the total cost of providing paid sick leave to small businesses in San Antonio to be $16.4 million a year, or 0.05 percent of revenues.

However, businesses will benefit from reduced turnover and increased productivity resulting from paid sick leave, the report states. Employees without sick leave are more likely to attend work with a contagious illness; productivity declines in the workplace due to illness; workplace injuries decrease when employees are allowed time off, and employers report less turnover when paid sick leave policies are in effect.

Those benefits to business are estimated at $10.9 million, the report stated. Fewer emergency room visits and nursing home stays or admissions will result in savings for the community as a whole at $33 million, according to the report.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.