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Austin Passed a Landmark Paid Leave Policy. Will Texas Republicans Undermine It?

Bryce Covert

“I have no doubt in my mind that when regular folks in this state understand what is possible, they’re going to ask ... why not us? Why can’t we also have the opportunity to take a day off when we get sick or when our kids get sick?”

Austin’s city council made history last week, becoming the first legislative body in the South to pass a paid sick leave policy guaranteeing workers the right to a paid day off if they, or a member of their family, fall ill.

The new law means 87,000 more people in the city will be able to take paid sick days after it goes into effect for most workers on October 1. The law requires workers to accrue an hour of leave for every 30 hours they put in, capped at eight days for most employers and six days for those with 15 or fewer workers. Austin joins 30 cities, two counties, and nine states across the United States with similar laws.

But opposition to the family-friendly policy hasn’t given up. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is supporting state legislation that would block cities from enacting their own legislation, and state Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) has already promised to file a bill banning local paid sick leave laws.

Such pre-emption bills are the law of the land in at least 15 states, blocking not just the right to paid sick leave but also higher minimum wages and fair scheduling requirements passed by local legislative bodies. State lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have pushed these laws in response to local victories in raising wages and securing other benefits.

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“It can have a chilling impact on the introduction of policies that have the potential to be pre-empted,”  said Sarah Johnson, director of Local Progress, which was involved in advocating for the legislation. But Austin decided to take a different approach. The city “realiz[ed] their power and [fought] back and [went] on offense despite that.”

“It’s important to have these conversations even in an environment of potential state pre-emption,” she added.

José Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, one of the organizations that advocated for the legislation, has no doubt Abbott will pursue pre-emption and other policies that could quash local initiatives like Austin’s. “It is clear that Governor Abbott has declared war on working families in the state of Texas,” he said.

Garza thinks they’ll be able to fight back. Last year’s Texas legislative agenda was one “of division that was intended to pit Texans against Texans,” he said. “This year we have an opportunity to put forward an agenda that unites people and that represents the best of who we are as Texans.”

Pushing through the paid leave policy took months of work. The rally announcing the campaign to get the city council to pass a paid sick leave policy was over Labor Day weekend last year. Even the kickoff event proved there was a lot of interest in paid leave when about 100 people showed up.

“Here in the state of Texas, I think regular folks have come to understand that they can’t count on statewide elected officials to do positive things for working families,” Garza said. “Regular folks in Texas are just hungry for their leaders to show leadership and address the everyday needs that working people have. And so I think when people heard that it was a possibility that they could have the opportunity to take a day off when they got sick, it was an easy thing for folks to get excited about.”

“We used every tool in our toolbox to talk to regular people and to let them know what was happening,” Garza said. His team knocked on doors, made phone calls, and used social media to get the word out. “And then working people in Austin did the rest.”

More than 200 people showed up to testify on the day of the paid leave vote. “It was a beautiful mix of workers who were impacted [and] small business owners who supported the law,” Johnson said.

Reproductive rights advocates testified about how much time off work it requires to receive abortion care in Texas, given how far so many women have to travel to get one. “This very beautiful representation of cross-sectional, intersectional organizing among a lot of communities,” Johnson said.

A number of members on the city council were supportive, as was the city’s mayor, Steve Adler. But it wasn’t an easy fight. “Corporate interests brought to bear an enormous amount of resources to stop this from happening,” Garza said. The Austin Chamber of Commercethe National Federation of Independent Business, and the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association all voiced opposition to paid leave, warning that it would be too costly, hurting small businesses and the local economy.

“City council members were getting an enormous amount of incorrect information … they were hearing voices clamoring for delay,” Garza said. In the end, “an overwhelming majority of the council heard through the noise, sought a common-sense policy, and listened to the voices of hundreds of thousands of working people,” Garza added. The proposal passed 9 to 2.

The seeds of the organizing in favor of paid sick leave were sown during the fight with the state over SB 4, a state law that required local officials to cooperate with federal immigration authorities that ask them to detain undocumented people. A diverse coalition was built at the local level to push back. “This really is just the next iteration of … a very broad coalition,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty incredible feat of organizing.”

“What we’re going to see across the state of Texas for the rest of the year is that regular people are going to continue to come together to raise their voices in cities all across the state and demand that their elected officials adopt policies that help working families get ahead,” Garza added.

It may have already begun. After the vote in Austin’s city council, Dallas City Councilmember Philip Kingston said he’d push for the same in his city. “It makes me optimistic that the same development could happen in Dallas,” he told the Dallas Observer. “I fully anticipate that there will be an effort both on council and from workers’ rights advocates to bring this measure to Dallas.”

“When our elected officials act with courage, they give other people the courage to stand up and act as well, and [on Thursday] that’s what the Austin city council did and what Mayor Adler did: They acted with courage,” Garza said. “And courage is contagious.”

The impact might even be felt outside Texas’ borders. “Every new policy that passes, it creates momentum and energy for the movement to continue to spread nationally,” Johnson said. Austin benefited from this phenomenon when officials from three other cities that already passed paid sick leave laws testified in front of the city council about their positive experiences. “It’s incredibly important to show that in other cities that have this policy, it hasn’t had a detrimental impact.”

“I have no doubt in my mind that when regular folks in this state understand what is possible, they’re going to ask the simple question: Why not us?” Garza added. “Why can’t we also have the opportunity to take a day off when we get sick or when our kids get sick?”

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