Senate panel moves forward with overruling Austin’s sick leave rules

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Texas senate panel of lawmakers cleared an idea that would overrule Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. It now heads to the full Texas Senate and must pass the Texas House before the end of May for it to become law.

The effort is pushed by state Republican lawmakers. Senate Bill 15, passed the Senate State Affairs Committee Thursday and if it becomes law cities would not be able to go beyond state or federal law when it comes to leaving, hiring, or benefits requirements for businesses. 

Austin City Councilman Greg Casar says if state lawmakers want to change laws in Austin’s city limits, they should run for Austin City Council. 

“State legislators should be fighting to make things better for Texans instead of trying to do city councils jobs and trying to take away laws they don’t like to protect workers,” said Casar. 

Austin’s City Council required employers to pay for at least six days per year for every employee. That ordinance is now halted by state courts. 

Annie Spilman from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, representing thousands of employers in Texas, tells KXAN uniform rules makes it easier for 21st-century business. 

“When the city gets into the business of regulating these employment practices on a city level, city to city to city to city, it very much complicates compliance for small business owners,” said Spilman.

A lot of the major business groups fought that policy at Austin City Hall and failed. So many of those same business groups are back at the capitol supporting SB 15.

“Every day, companies move here from places like California because Texas promotes policies that encourage low taxation and fair, predictable regulation,” said state Senator Brandon Creighton, R-Beaumont, author of SB 15, “Local ordinances like the ‘Paid Sick Leave’ policies in Austin and San Antonio are intrusive, expensive and burdensome to Texas’ job creators, and create an environment that is counter to our business-friendly environment.”

It’s a match-up we’ve seen before: conservative state lawmakers versus progressive members of Austin’s city council.

“What we want and what we’re asking for is consistency. If the state wants sick leave, then let’s do it statewide so there’s a level playing field,” said Frank Fuentes, an Austin home construction contractor and representatives of the Hispanic Contractor Association. When Austin requires one thing and other cities don’t, Fuentes says they suffer in an intercity industry.

“If we carry the burden of what Austin mandates, when we go to Round Rock, Pflugerville, we are at a disadvantage because those businesses don’t carry our burden,” said Fuentes.

But not all businesses here want a change.

“It’s a scary prospect to think that something that involved local businesses, that was passed by democratically elected officials could then get pre-empted,” said Adam Orman from L’Oca d’Oro.

Orman employs about thirty people in his Austin restaurant. Even if people don’t share the same political values, Orman says, lawmakers should care about health and safety.

“So many people are touching the food that you’re going to be eating, for them to know that they don’t have to come into work because they’re still going to get paid seems like a high priority at the state level, but it isn’t,” said Orman.

The Senate State Affairs Committee passed SB 15, 5 to 1.

Right now Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance is halted by the courts. The next step would be taking the case to the Texas Supreme Court if those justices decide to hear it. This fight at the legislature will likely finish before the case is finished.

This is not the first time the state has stepped in to overrule a city ordinance.

In 2017, lawmakers created statewide regulations for ride-sharing companies. That convinced Lyft and Uber to return to Austin. They left in May 2016 after Austin voters approved an ordinance requiring fingerprint background checks for ride-hailing drivers.

In 2015, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill preempting local efforts to regulate some oil and gas activities. That came after the city of Denton voted to ban fracking in city limits. That’s when liquid is injected into the ground to extract gas.

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