Debate over discrimination ordinances may save Austin’s paid sick leave policy

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A fight over non-discrimination language could scuttle an effort to overrule the sick pay ordinances of Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. 

Republican state lawmakers moved early on a series of bills banning cities from going beyond what the state and federal government requires for paid time-off, benefits, scheduling and other employment factors. 

In an interview with KXAN News, Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said he supports overruling city ordinances on businesses practices but signaled the bill would not move forward in the Texas House without protections for LGBT Texans.

“The reality is we’re not happy with cities passing these paid sick leave ordinances. It’s not fair and good for Texas business and Texas job growth but we are also not going to allow discrimination to occur,” said Speaker Bonnen.

The original draft of the bill had specific language stating it would leave city non-discrimination ordinances in place, making it against the law for employees to discriminate against LGBT Texans. There is no LGBT protection on a federal level so a large number of groups, including business coalitions supporting the bill, do not want the state to overrule those protections at a city level. 

The measure passed the Texas Senate in a series of bills; the author, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, told KXAN at the time he didn’t want the bill to mention non-discrimination ordinances (NDOs) in any way. LGBT groups worried those bills created an unwanted grey area that would allow wiggle room for discrimination. 

Speaker Bonnen confirmed to KXAN the bill needed specific language to make it crystal clear that non-discrimination ordinances would survive.

“That’s right,” he told KXAN.

The presiding officer of the Texas Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, has not yet responded to a KXAN request for comment for this story. 

In late April, the Bonnen-appointed Chairman of the powerful House State Affairs Committee, Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told the Texas Tribune in a podcast that the non-discrimination language must be in the bill for it to eventually become law. He included NDO language in the bills and they are waiting to be placed on the House calendar for a vote. If approved, the final version of the bill will have to be negotiated with the Texas Senate before it heads to Governor Abbott’s desk. 

“It’s completely unacceptable. This is 2019,” Phelan said in the podcast while saying he’s done “bashing” the LGBTQ community. 

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, is the author of the measure in the Texas Senate. In response to Speaker Bonnen’s comments, he told KXAN,”These four bills are critical to Texas businesses big and small, and I hope the House debates them sooner than later so they can make their way through the legislative process. If they continue to be held up, there could be serious consequences for the Texas economy.” 

Progressive advocacy groups – Grassroots Leadership, the Workers Defense Project, and the Texas Democratic Party – oppose the original bill’s intent in the first place.

“No Texan should ever have to choose between keeping their job and caring for a sick loved one,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa, “With the new historic laws put in place by Austin, Dallas, De Soto, and San Antonio, it’s shameful that Republicans are trying to undo our progress.”

Earlier this legislative session, the effort was in one bill, Senate Bill 15, but that version was bogged down over NDOs. Instead, Creighton, R-Conroe, split SB 15 into four separate bills in order to avoid specific language on city non-discrimination ordinances. 

SB 2485 would prohibit local regulation of employment benefits. SB 2486 prohibits local regulation of scheduling and overtime compensation practices. SB 2487 prohibits local regulation of employment leave. SB 2488 prohibits local regulation of employment actions by private employers based on the criminal history record information – what’s commonly known as “ban the box” ordinances. 

Without the NDO language written into those bills, the House will not move on the bills. 

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