San Antonio City Council voted 8-3 Thursday to approve revisions to the paid sick leave ordinance passed last year – with an amendment that requires all San Antonio businesses, regardless of size, to provide the benefit to their workers. The ordinance will take effect Dec. 1.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged council members to vote in support of the ordinance, now called the Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance, and its passage was cheered by local advocacy groups.

“Our goal is to bolster public health and quality of life for all of our city’s residents,”  Nirenberg said. “I stand by the petitioners, the process, and the public in voting for revisions that provide all San Antonio working families a better chance to remain healthy on the job and safe at home.”

Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3), Manny Pelaez (D8), and Clayton Perry (D10) voted against adopting the revisions.

The ordinance, as originally written and passed by City Council in August 2018, would have required San Antonio employers to provide one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked, with a yearly cap of 48 hours for small employers and 64 hours for those with more than 15 employees.

The newly approved ordinance, passed with revisions recommended by the citizen-led Paid Sick Leave Commission and one amendment approved during Thursday’s council meeting, requires San Antonio employers to provide the same amount of sick leave, but with a yearly cap of 56 hours for all employers, regardless of size.

The ordinance defines “employee” as an individual who performs work for pay within the San Antonio city limits, including temporary, seasonal, part-time, and full-time employees. Employees who work more than 50 percent of their time outside of San Antonio are covered under this ordinance if they work at least 240 hours within city limits during the course of a year.

More than a dozen citizens along with paid sick leave advocates from MOVE Texas Action Fund and the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), whose petitions were the driving force behind the original ordinance, addressed the council at the start of a discussion, speaking in favor of the ordinance.

Afterward, they gathered in Main Plaza to celebrate.

“Our people power showed we were able to be successful today,” said Joleen Garcia, TOP organizer. “Every single one of you that participated in the petition process, every single one of you that went to the many city council meetings we had … and then we went to Austin and spoke out and then we went to the courthouse, because why? Because justice is a long journey.”

Local chambers of commerce leaders, the president of the San Antonio Tourism Council, and other business owners, however, told the council before the vote that it should not mandate rules governing the relationship between employee and employer.

“We firmly believe that wage compensation and employment ethics are unique to each business … and are dictated by existing state and federal law,” said Cristina Aldrete, president and CEO of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, who was joined at the podium by leaders of the San Antonio and South San Antonio chambers. “Under no circumstance should this issue have been allowed by council to get this far.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) successfully introduced an amendment to allow paid interns to be eligible to earn paid sick time, but not unpaid interns or those receiving stipends. The ordinance, as revised by the Paid Sick Leave Commission, included interns in the definition of “employee” and those eligible to earn paid sick time.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Pelaez, a labor attorney, said parts of the ordinance still concerned him and questioned whether it was violating state labor laws. “We have to be very good stewards of our resources, and I’m really worried we will still have to go to court and defend this thing,” Pelaez said.

A state appeals court ruled last year that Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance, which is similar to San Antonio’s, is unconstitutional. The decision by the 3rd Court of Appeals is awaiting review by the Texas Supreme Court. Legal challenges to a Dallas paid sick leave ordinance are also pending, although that city’s ordinance has gone into effect.

In July, a group of local businesses, including the San Antonio Restaurant Association and staffing agencies, filed a lawsuit against the City of San Antonio to block its paid sick leave ordinance. After a district judge approved an agreement between the City and the plaintiffs to delay implementation of the ordinance until Dec. 1, the commission returned to its work making revisions in an effort to gather stakeholder support and avert the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs have until Nov. 7 to move forward.

“We ask this council, in the wake of the city’s own legal challenges in this matter, at the very least to consider postponing this vote until multiple lawsuits are resolved,” Aldrete said in addressing the council prior to the vote.

Before the vote, Sandoval called upon the commission’s chairwoman, Danielle Hargrove, to explain why that group recommended including all employers, regardless of size, in the ordinance. Hargrove responded that even though the commission could not reach a full consensus on the issue, they did agree that because their intention was to support public health, “it seemed contradictory to distinguish between size of employer.”

Viagran said that her job is to do what’s best for the city and look at the ordinance holistically, and for that reason, she could not support the revised ordinance. “What I am concerned about is … this is a one-size-fits-all [ordinance] and does not speak to the unique employers and unique employees of San Antonio, with the San Antonio perspective,” she said.

However, Councilman John Courage (D9) said he supported the recommended changes to the original ordinance, though not the amendment proposed by Sandoval. “I believe no one should lose their job or income because they are sick,” he said. “This is one community and we all need to share in being understanding about those concerns.”

Texas Organizing Project advocate Kevin LeMelle holds his arms up in celebration following the vote on Paid Sick Leave. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Following the vote, Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) released a statement praising the decision to move forward with paid sick leave.

“This would not have been possible without the work of MOVE Texas, a group that has fought tooth and nail to ensure young people have a seat at the table, the work of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), who have long been advocates for workers in Texas, as well as the business community, and hard-working San Antonians across the city,” she stated.

Perry also released a statement saying he remains strongly opposed to government-mandated leave policies. “It is not our responsibility as a Council to dictate how private companies should handle their day-to-day business practices. This discussion should be held at the State level. By passing this revised ordinance, we are again asking for a lawsuit against San Antonio that will inevitably cost our taxpayers money.”

But Sandoval called it a step forward for not only workers but also economic equity in the city. “As the daughter of working parents, I recognize Sick and Safe Time for what it is: a transformative policy – one that puts San Antonio on track to stop making headlines for its poverty and economic segregation and start making them for its prosperity and friendliness to families,” she stated.

Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said Metro Health will begin public information sessions in the coming weeks. Sessions are scheduled for Oct. 16, 1-3 p.m., Urban Ecology Center; Nov. 4, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Central Library; and Nov. 7, 4-6 p.m., South Side Lions Senior Center. More information about the ordinance is available on the City’s website.

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...