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Paid Sick Leave Has Finally Come to the South

Auditi Guha

Legislators in 13 states have passed laws giving 16 million people access to paid sick time. Dallas could be the first city in the South to implement the policy.

More than 300,000 workers in Dallas have access to paid sick leave thanks to a city ordinance that kicked in August 1—the first paid sick leave law in the South, and a victory in a state where similar efforts have stalled.

The ordinance, passed in April, has been challenged by businesses and the state attorney general, but the Dallas City Council has held firm. 

Passed 10-4 by the Dallas City Council, the ordinance went into effect August 1 for employers with six or more workers. It allows those who work more than 80 hours a year to accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. For businesses with five or fewer workers, the city will not enforce or issue fines until 2021, except in cases involving retaliation. 

“The Dallas ordinance is different because it is the only ordinance in Texas that moved forward despite a lawsuit, and the first paid sick time law to be implemented in the South,” Juliet Barbara, communications director for Workers Defense, told Rewire.News. “Days before the ordinance was due to be implemented, corporate interests threatened to sue the City of Dallas unless the city would agree to delay the paid sick time ordinance. But the city didn’t accept the deal and paid sick time is now law in Dallas.”

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Brianna Brown, deputy director of the Texas Organizing Project, which organizes Black and Latino communities, said many of the 300,000 workers who will benefit from the Dallas ordinance are people of color. “This historic win didn’t appear out of thin air. This ordinance … was the result of working families, community groups, and elected leaders organizing and coming together with a common goal of providing workers with more dignity and respect in the workplace,” Brown said in a statement.

The paid sick time policy will make significant difference to Lucy Quintana, a housekeeper at a large hotel chain in Dallas who fell behind on her bills after being out a week for a medical procedure for which she did not get paid time off. “I now have the tranquility knowing that if I get sick it won’t affect my paycheck,” she said in a press release. 

Dallas resident and Texas Organizing Project member Hector Amaya, 31, told Rewire.News he faced dire financial consequences when his father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Amaya was just out of college and working in car sales  on commissions when he took time off to help his father, who was from El Salvador and spoke little English.

“I wanted to do it because he was my family, so I helped him, translated for the doctors, and was taking lots of personal time off, and my well-being and mental health started deteriorating,” he said. Amaya took almost a year off and eventually left the job. His father ended up living for eight more years, but the lack of paid sick leave during this period affected them, he said.

“This makes me feel good that we were able to achieve this,” said Amaya, who has campaigned for paid sick leave by telling his story. “It feels so great, so empowering, so good to know that people now have the opportunity to take time off to care for themselves and their families.” 

Lack of paid sick leave disproportionately affects low-wage workers, people of color, and single parents, who often have to choose between taking a pay cut or losing a job and staying home to care for themselves or a sick child. In the service industry, which employs a large number of low-income workers, those who don’t take leave and come into work sick can infect others.

Similar ordinances passed in San Antonio and Austin are stalled due to legal challenges. A lower court decision declaring Austin’s policy unconstitutional has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. The San Antonio ordinance’s implementation was delayed to December 1 after business groups filed a lawsuit against the city. 

The Dallas case is different, advocates say, because it has the backing of a strong coalition and the Dallas City Council. They have made it clear they aren’t going to let anyone take this away, said Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values @ Work.

“We are thrilled that people working in Texas can have sick days, and have built a broad and diverse coalition, and are making it clear this is a health issue, an economic issue, a family issue, a work issue, and that they will not back down,” she told Rewire.News.

Unlike the San Antonio and Austin ordinances, the Dallas paid sick time measure is being fought in federal rather than state court, the Dallas News reported. Attempts in the Texas legislature to prohibit local paid leave ordinances failed this year.

The lawsuit was filed July 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation on behalf of two local employers. The Texas Public Policy Foundation demanded that city delay the paid leave policy, but the ordinance went into effect on August 1 as planned.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) said this week that the state will join the lawsuit against the city’s paid sick leave ordinance, KRLD reported. In a statement Wednesday, Paxton called Dallas’ implementation of the worker benefit an “example of the lawlessness and disregard for working Texans that is becoming all too common among local governments in our larger cities.”

“Given the rising momentum behind paid sick time in Texas and the fact that 70 percent of Texas voters support requiring paid sick time, we’re optimistic that the Dallas ordinance will survive any challenges from corporate interestslegal or otherwise,” Barbara said. “We hope that this victory is energizing for communities throughout Texas and the South who are fighting for basic rights like paid sick time. It’s an example of what can happen when communities come together to fight for their rights.”

Legislators in 13 states have passed laws giving 16 million people access to paid sick time. Maine and Nevada are the latest states where Democratic majorities have passed paid sick time laws. Counting municipalities, advocates are celebrating 50 paid sick time wins since 2006. When San Francisco voters approved a paid sick leave ordinance in 2006the country’s first to allow all workers to accrue sick leave benefitsthe policy benefited 59,000 workers who had not previously had access to paid sick leave. 

“About a third of the workforce and a much higher percentage—close to four-fifths of low-wage workers—still don’t earn a single paid sick day in the United States,” Bravo said. “Many people who do aren’t able to use the time for a sick family member, or they get demerits for using it, or have to give a week’s notice that their child is going to throw up on their way out the door. So these laws acknowledge a fundamental value that people should be able to care for themselves and their loved ones without falling off an economic cliff. And this is an easy thing to do.”

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