City-mandated paid sick days becoming real possibility for small businesses


AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the city council vote on whether to require employers to provide paid sick days to their employees quickly approaches, small businesses in Austin say they’re preparing themselves and their companies for what they now see as a very real possibility.

The Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hosted a community forum Monday evening with District 4 Council Member Greg Casar to gain input from the group and have a conversation about what the policy could mean for employers and employees, alike.

“I think it’s a good law. I think it’ll benefit the employees. But, also as a small business, we want to make sure that it does not hurt small businesses,” explained Guadalupe Barragan, the CEO of Casa Chapala, a Mexican restaurant and bar. If it’ll help our employees, we want to do it, [but], it needs to benefit everybody.”

According to a study by Work Strong Austin, more than 50 percent of the Hispanic population in Austin do not have paid sick days. The study continued that 37 percent of Austinites – about 223,000 people – don’t have access to sick days.

“Paid sick days is a basic right all over the world,” said Council Member Casar, who says people shouldn’t have to be forced to make impossible choices. “Do I take care of a sick child, or do I go to work so that I can afford to pay the rent, or pay for groceries, or for that child’s medicine?”

The proposed ordinance — published Jan. 19 — highlighted that denying earned sick time to employees “is unjust,” “is detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the City,” and “contributes to employee turnover and unemployment, and harms the local economy.”

Some, however, say offering paid sick days could cost businesses and the city more money. “People don’t realize that in the food service business, the margins aren’t as high as people think,” Jenai Hales told KXAN in November.

Hales owns Cafe Aragona in downtown and employs eight people. She says paying them when they don’t show up to work would be too costly.

To that concern, Casar said, “This law should provide them with some level of security knowing that it will level the playing field — that everyone is going to have to do it. So, it’s not like we’re picking some businesses over others. All businesses will have to rise up to a standard of just providing some small number of paid sick days to all of their employees.”

Under the ordinance, employees would accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours they work, and can start using it as soon as they’ve earned it.

Employees can use the sick time if they are hurt or ill, need to care for a family member who is injured or sick, if they need to get medical attention or have a doctor’s appointment for preventative care. People can also use the time if they need to participate in legal or court-ordered action related to domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking of them or their family. Employers can’t ask for proof unless a worker will be out for more than three consecutive days.

Employers don’t have to provide more than 64 hours of earned sick time, and the leftovers from one year can roll over into the next. Employees who take sick leave would be paid what they would have earned normally except for tips, overtime premium or commissions. They can’t be paid less than the state minimum wage.

The city of Austin’s Equal Employment Opportunity/Fair Housing Office would be in charge of investigating any complaints or violations. The city may assess a fine of up to $500 for a violation by a company.

The City Council will vote on the ordinance Feb. 15.

For more information about the ordinance up for debate, read an outline here.

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