Austin City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposed paid sick leave policy.
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar spearheaded the nearly yearlong process, including what he called a "very thorough" stakeholder process. Casar introduced a draft Jan. 19, along with co-sponsors Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and council members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen, requiring private employers in Austin to provide at least eight days of paid sick leave to full-time employees annually.
On Monday, District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan proposed an alternate proposal, which would establish tiers of sick day accrual according to the size of the business. Businesses with five or fewer employees would be able to offer unpaid sick leave and be in compliance with Flannigan’s proposal, if it is passed in place of Casar's.
Community Impact Newspaper spoke to a variety of stakeholders—including business owners, a policy advocate and an employee—on both sides of the issue. Their stories are below.
Adam Orman, co-owner, L'Oca d'Oro
When the owners at L’Oca d’Oro, a new Italian restaurant in East Austin, learned of a legislative push within the city for private employers to provide paid sick leave, they wanted to get ahead of the game, Orman said.
So in fall 2017, the locally owned business began offering paid sick leave—a maximum of five days per year—to its 25 employees.
“By and large, they want to come to work,” said Adam Orman, L’Oca d’Oro general manager and co-owner. “And we need them to come to work.”
In the four months since implementing the policy, however, Orman said the business has only paid out one sick day and has been able to track accruals without the need for a new payroll software.
“It’s pretty easy to keep track of,” Orman said.
Ultimately, for Orman, the decision to offer paid sick leave was simple, he said.
“That race to the bottom is not something we want to be a part of,” he said of the pushback to the policy. “If you can’t do [these] things for the people who are making you money, then I question whether you should be running a business.”
Mario Chapa, owner, Chapa Construction and Flooring
Mario Chapa founded his business, Chapa Construction and Flooring, three years ago.
Since then, he and his partner have offered quarterly bonuses to their 12 employees in 10 of the 12 quarters they’ve been in business, he said.
The business also offers full-time employees comprehensive health care, covering 100 percent of the cost, Chapa said, and recently implemented a retirement plan as well.
If Austin City Council approves a paid sick leave policy, Chapa will likely have to dock some of his employees’ benefits to cover the associated costs, he said.
“We like that our employees have to show that they’re sick,” such that they need to provide a doctor’s note to earn a paid day off, Chapa said.
In the past, his business has dealt with employees who have taken advantage of paid sick days, which led to an internal policy change to prevent this “abuse.”
“Now that it costs vacation time,” Chapa said, his employees request fewer sick days.
Unless a paid sick leave ordinance can address these concerns—Chapa said neither Casar nor Flannigan’s proposals do to his satisfaction—he will remain “totally against this policy.”
“It definitely merits more discussion,” he said.
Jen Ramos, bartender, The Iron Cactus
Jen Ramos works as a bartender on Sixth Street in downtown Austin. As a tipped worker, she earns $2.13 an hour and does not qualify for minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour in Texas.
Recently, she has worked through strep throat and the flu. Her employer requires tipped workers to find a replacement if they need to miss work because of illness. Ramos said, however, that she knows of many co-workers who have worked while ill because they cannot afford to lose pay.
“It means a payment, rent, your utilities bill, groceries,” she said.
Additionally, the cost of health care discourages many workers from seeking treatment.
“It almost gets to the point where you don’t go to the doctor because then you have to pay for the appointment,” she said.
Coupled with the loss of pay and tips, which can add up to $150 a day, it can mean a loss of $300, Ramos said.
Ramos has been a vocal supporter of Casar’s paid sick leave ordinance.
“It’s 2018,” Ramos said. “We shouldn’t be arguing about people going to work sick.”
Will Newton, executive director, National Federation of Independent Businesses Texas
“Have you noticed all the iconic local businesses that went out of business last year because of [rising] property taxes?” asked Will Newton, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses Texas office.
If passed, Casar's paid sick leave policy will add to the plight of small business owners, Newton said.
“This ordinance says that the Austin City Council wants every business to be a big box store, and they don’t want any local, small business involved in the economy of Austin ever again,” Newton said.
The NFIB takes issue with any type of paid sick leave policy, which Newton said represents an unacceptable interference of government in privately-owned business operations.
“This ordinance, even Council Member Flannigan’s ordinance, is a one-size-fits-all [policy],” Newton said. “If it’s wrong at one level, it’s wrong on all levels.”
The NFIB is a nonprofit organization that represents small-business policy across the country. Past tax records indicate the NFIB receives the majority of its funding from Freedom Partners, a conservative economic policy group whose board is dominated by Koch Industries-affiliated members.
Regardless of whether the Austin City Council approves a paid sick leave policy on Thursday, NFIB will pursue state legislation to prevent municipalities from enacting their own policies on the matter.
“We can’t have different employee regulations across the state of Texas,” Newton said. “We need consistency.”