Alex Zrinski (right) picks cilantro in preparation of dinner service as John Carpenter prepares a dish in the background. Photo by Scott Ball.
More than 130,000 people in San Antonio work in the leisure and hospitality industry. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Leaders in the San Antonio office of a statewide nonprofit that works for social and economic equality say the organization launched a petition drive last week to get a paid sick leave ordinance onto the ballot in the next municipal election.

“Last year, we surveyed thousands of people in San Antonio to find out what issues they cared about the most,” Texas Organizing Project Executive Director Michelle Tremillo a Friday email to the Rivard Report. “Their answers are driving our efforts to win criminal justice reforms and improve working conditions for all workers, starting with winning paid sick days.”

The Rivard Report’s repeated requests for the survey results went unanswered, but a spokesperson said the survey was conducted mostly by knocking on doors and some by phone.

The Texas Organizing Project also did not respond to requests for a copy of the petition. The City charter gives voters the power to initiate almost any ordinance, starting with what’s called an initiative petition. Petitions must contain the full text of the proposed ordinance and the circulator must gather a number of signatures greater than 10 percent of the registered voters at the time of the last municipal election.

There were 753,736 registered voters in San Antonio ahead of the 2017 mayoral elections. The petition would, therefore, require more than 75,373 signatures.

Paid sick leave laws exist in a handful of cities and states throughout the country. Washington and Rhode Island have most recently passed laws that mandate such benefits. Yet, according to A Better Balance, an organization that promotes economic equality for men and women in the workplace, more than 37 million American workers – three out of 10 – can’t stay home to care for themselves or a sick child without fear of losing a job or wages.

In response, both House and Senate leaders have proposed the Healthy Families Act, an attempt to guarantee workers nationwide the right to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to address their own health needs or to care for a sick family member.

A Better Balance reports that most Americans who do not have paid sick leave benefits work in food service (four of five) or personal service (three of four).

In a city like San Antonio, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports more than 130,000 are working in the leisure and hospitality industry, requiring employers to provide paid sick time could have a significant impact on both workers, who long for paid sick leave, and their employers.

Paid sick leave is among the many benefits and rights the national union organizing group Unite Here works to attain for workers in the hotel and food service industries. In 2015, it was successful in efforts to establish five-year union contracts at two Hyatt hotels on the River Walk.

As of Friday, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez said he was not aware of the paid sick leave effort before reading a recent article in the San Antonio Express-News that first reported on the campaign. No members have come to him about the petition, he said, but the Chamber would be “apprehensive” about a paid sick leave ordinance.

“It’s expensive and there are lot of things business has to deal with already … particularly a business that has high turnover,” Perez said. “If you provide sick leave and the employee uses it and then leaves, it’s a tough thing for a business to deal with.

“Businesses provide benefits based on their ability to provide benefits. Businesses are not in the business of shortchanging employees. Otherwise [employees] would leave. The idea that businesses are squeezing employees is not the case.”

The Texas Organizing Project effort comes just weeks after the Austin City Council approved a new rule requiring businesses in that city to provide paid sick leave, making the capital the first Texas city to pass a paid sick-day ordinance.

Starting Oct. 1, private employers in Austin must allow their workers to accrue up to 64 hours, or eight days, of paid sick leave per year, according to a report in the Texas Tribune. Small businesses with 15 or fewer employees could have paid sick days up to 48 hours, or six work days.

Several state legislators, however, have vowed to support legislation overturning the ordinance in the next session.

Tremillo said Texas Organizing Projec wants to let San Antonio voters decide for themselves whether to mandate paid sick leave, starting with gaining enough signatures to put the proposed initiative on the ballot and meeting with City Council members.

“We’re taking this to the voters because this campaign is going to be fought and won by the people of San Antonio,” she stated. “This is not just about winning an ordinance but about engaging San Antonians in reimagining our city as a progressive, inclusive, and welcoming city where everyone has a chance at opportunity and success.”

If the campaign is successful, Perez said, “I suspect we would get involved and I suspect we would be against it.”

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...