As the city continues to grapple with affordability challenges, Austin City Council is slated to tackle a contentious labor issue early next year: paid sick leave.

On Dec. 14, Council Member Greg Casar of District 4 said he would introduce an ordinance at the City Council’s Feb. 1 meeting that incorporates public feedback gathered by city staff.

The drafted policy will address concerns raised by Casar’s fellow council members, he said, including whether a paid time off policy would be more sensible for employers and employees alike.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair of District 8 worries that mandating private employers in Austin to provide paid sick leave will affect some businesses more than others. The proposed policy “disproportionately impacts small businesses,” she said, and “restricts their ability to provide jobs in the first place.”

Public feedback

After approving a resolution to solicit public input on a potential ordinance mandating paid sick leave for all private employees in the city limits Sept. 28, the council received a report detailing the findings Dec. 5.

City staff gathered feedback—from employers, employees, advocate groups and human resources and temporary agencies—at a series of stakeholder meetings, on the online forum it created for this purpose and via text message.

“This is one of the most robust public discussions I’ve seen,” said Larry Schooler, who facilitated the public input process on behalf of the city.

Business interests

Representatives from the business community, including small-business owners and chamber representatives, are generally against the policy, according to Doug Matthews, the city’s chief communications director.

Their reasons include a lack of flexibility to accommodate different sizes and types of business, a possible disincentive for employers to hire and operate in Austin, the lowering of wages to account for the cost of implementing the policy and employee abuse of paid time off.

On Nov. 15, however, a group of 20 small and local businesses sent a letter to the council in support of the policy.

Dan Gillotte, chief executive grocer of the Wheatsville Food Co-op, was one of the signatories.

“If we all have to offer [paid sick leave], it would even the playing field,” he said.

Wheatsville has offered paid sick leave for more than 20 years. Companies that do not offer it are “at a financial advantage at the moment that isn’t exactly fair,” Gillotte said.

He is hopeful, however, the city can find “a reasonable path” that provides more workers with paid sick leave without leaving business owners saddled with paperwork or increased costs.

Workers’ rights

Employees and worker advocates believe that a paid sick leave policy is an essential workers’ right.

Like the minimum wage, a paid sick leave policy creates a floor, or an absolute minimum, for what workers are due, according to Bo Delp of the Workers Defense Project.

“These costs are being pushed around to people already,” Delp said.

Workers may risk their jobs or their ability to pay for rent or groceries when staying home to recover from an illness or taking care of a sick child or parents.

Employers, on the other hand, have to pay to hire and train a new employee when they fire someone for missing work because of sickness.

Next steps

Now that public feedback has been received, the council needs a policy on which to vote.
Council Members Alison Alter and Leslie Pool both expressed doubts Dec. 14 that a paid sick leave policy that incorporates public feedback and is feasible for small businesses can be drafted in less than two months.

But Casar believes a sensible policy can be crafted by Feb. 1 because of the success of the public input process. “There was real conversation happening around what an ordinance could look like,” he said.