Atty Gen. Ken PaxtonAt the Texas Republican Convention at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Friday, June 15, 2018.
The Texas House impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton, shown in San Antonio in 2018, on a 121-23 vote Saturday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In a Monday letter sent to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said a proposed paid sick leave ordinance in San Antonio would “conflict directly” with State law. 

Minimum wage, which includes the minimum amount of paid time off, is set by the Texas Legislature, not local jurisdictions, Paxton wrote.

Paxton’s letter comes on the heels of a local push to get a paid sick leave ordinance on the municipal ballot in the November election. A coalition of advocates in late May submitted more than 144,000 petition signatures – more than double the requisite 69,950 – for verification to the City attorney.

If enacted through a vote by City Council or the public, nearly all private-sector employees in San Antonio would earn paid sick leave.

The language in Paxton’s letter mirrors the attorney general’s opposition to the City of Austin’s recently passed employer paid sick leave ordinance, which he called “unlawful.” Passed in a 9-2 vote on Feb. 16, the ordinance is slated to go into effect in October.

“The argument that the attorney general is using [in San Antonio] is the same he used and lost in his case against Austin,” said Michelle Tremillo, co-founder and executive director of San Antonio’s chapter of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), one of several local organizations that comprise the coalition Working Texans for Paid Sick Leave. “The judge [didn’t] think it’s a good argument.”

After hearing two days worth of testimony, Travis County State District Court Judge Tim Sulak on June 26 denied a temporary injunction supported by Paxton against the City of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. Plaintiffs, including the Texas Association of Business, had argued against what they considered prohibitive costs associated with the measure.

While Tremillo remains unfazed by Paxton’s call to reject the initiative, Nirenberg said Austin’s struggles give local government officials “a lot to consider.”

“Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance is being contested in court, and now Attorney General Paxton has asked us to reject the proposed ordinance,” Nirenberg said. “We need to weigh all of the factors carefully.”

More than 350,000 San Antonio workers currently do not have access to paid sick time. If placed on the ballot and approved by voters, the ordinance would require employers in the city to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capped at six or eight days annually depending on the size of the business. It would also allow parents to take time off to care for sick children.

Ten states and Washington D.C. currently mandate paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, despite federal law not requiring employers to provide workers with paid or unpaid leave.

The State of Texas also does not require sick leave to be provided to employees.

“We are working to make sure that all people in San Antonio can take care of their families if they get sick,” Tremillo said. “They have the right to do so.”

Tremillo noted several studies that paid sick days and paid family leave do not lead to increased unemployment. A 2017 study by the Center for American Progress indicates that family-friendly policies, including paid sick days, are not morale or “job killers;” rather, the study says they strengthen the economy by improving labor force participation.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said City Council must remain transparent about the petition for paid sick leave and its implications. “This will affect our residents and our business community,” Brockhouse said. “Now isn’t the time for partisan politics.”

San Antonio should focus on protecting itself “from legal exposure with sound legal analysis and recommendations,” he said. “The [attorney general]’s letter must be respected, and we must also adhere to the Charter requirement for petitions.

“It’s a tough spot to be in, but if we follow the law, we will make the right decisions.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.