The San Antonio City Council unanimously approved new zoning and infill development rules.
The San Antonio City Council unanimously approved new zoning and infill development rules. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

City Council on Thursday approved an ordinance that would make earned paid sick leave a reality for more than 350,000 workers in San Antonio.

But the controversial measure, which passed in a 9-2 vote, now faces an uncertain future due to possible conflict with state law.

The ordinance goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019, and requires employers to provide one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked, with a yearly cap of 48 hours for small employers and 64 hours for those with more than 15 employees. Businesses with more the five employees must comply by Aug. 1, 2019; those with less have until August 2021.

Supporters touted public health benefits for underserved communities throughout the city, while opponents cited concern over the measure’s financial impact on the business community.

“Paid sick leave creates a healthier San Antonio for all,” Nirenberg said. “It’s a public health issue, and the City has jurisdiction to pass ordinances to ensure the health and safety of our citizens.”

The San Antonio business community has widely opposed the ordinance since Working Texans for Paid Sick Time, a coalition of advocacy groups, submitted more than 140,000 petition signatures on May 24.

Ramiro Cavazos, president of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told City Council on Thursday that while the organization supports the concept of paid sick leave, it should not be implemented in a “prescriptive manner,” noting the decision should be made at the state level to ensure fair business practices.

Nirenberg said City Council adopting the ordinance provides an opportunity to find common ground between employees and businesses. It also allows potential revisions to the existing proposal before it goes into effect. The State of Texas still has to determine whether municipalities can legally implement a local standard for coordinating and allocating sick leave, Nirenberg said.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said there are too many unanswered questions about how the ordinance would affect both the bottom lines of the City of San Antonio and local businesses, and that fighting lawsuits in opposition to the ordinance also would cost taxpayer dollars.

“We are setting ourselves up for another lawsuit that we will have to defend with taxpayer money to go against the State when they have already told us they are going to preempt this,” Perry said.

San Antonio is the second city in Texas to pass a paid sick leave mandate after an ordinance passed in Austin in February. Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke out in opposition of cities attempting to implement local paid sick leave ordinances, which he said would “conflict directly” with state law.

In a letter sent to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council on June 9, Paxton said that “no matter the Council’s decision or the result of any ballot initiative, Texas law preempts a municipal paid sick leave ordinance.”

More recently, the Attorney General’s office has taken action to prove that point.

On Aug. 6, Paxton’s office filed a motion with the 3rd Court of Appeals to put a temporary hold on Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance before it goes into effect Oct. 1. The motion came after Travis County State District Court Judge Tim Sulak denied a temporary injunction supported by Paxton against the City of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance on June 26.

State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) also voiced opposition to City-mandated earned paid sick leave in a statement to Nirenberg and City Council that was read during Citizens to be Heard on Aug. 9. She called the outcome of Thursday’s council vote “extremely disappointing.”

“If left unchallenged, this California-sized overreach into the daily operations of private businesses will have a negative effect on wages and jobs while making it harder for small businesses to stay open,” Campbell’s wrote in a Thursday statement. “I stand ready to introduce legislation that protects the rights of business owners and the best interests of the Texas economy.”

Nirenberg said he plans to form a commission to address legal concerns and consider options to revise the ordinance. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), a labor attorney, has been pegged to serve on the committee.

Pelaez voted to approve the ordinance, which he called “flawed but well-intentioned,” but said the measure is “dead on arrival” because the ordinance is preempted by state law and the Texas Constitution. The only way to settle it is by allowing the court system to determine legality, he said.

Council members who voted to pass the ordinance cited a win for underserved communities, public health in the workforce, and the democratic process.

“Every day, there are families who have to make the difficult decision whether to deal with an illness and miss out on pay …,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said in a written statement. “As the child who was raised by a single mother, I experienced this situation firsthand. I feel this effort addresses the struggle people like my mother deal with on a daily basis.”

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said “a healthy workforce is central to … the efforts and sacrifices of both business owners and employees,” emphasizing her commitment to protecting small business owners’ survival and growth.

“I want to thank the many community advocates who brought this petition to City Council and have spoken with us on this matter,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) stated after the vote. “Your work is an inspiring example of the democratic process and the power of civic engagement.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) pushed to have the measure added to the Nov. 6 ballot for a vote during the Thursday’s council meeting, citing a need for more information on how everyone involved would be impacted, including the City, employees, and employers.

In a statement sent after the measure was approved, Brockhouse said “City Council continues to overstep its boundaries and enact policies that are beyond the role of City government,” and that it “should not be telling business owners how to run their companies, pay for their employees or what benefits to offer.”

Nirenberg and City Council now have until Jan. 1, 2019 to determine how to best implement the ordinance so the City is in full compliance by Aug. 1, 2019.

Pelaez voted to approve the ordinance, which he called “flawed but well-intentioned,” but said the measure is “dead on arrival” because the ordinance is preempted by state law and the Texas Constitution. The only way to settle it is by allowing the court system to determine legality, he said.

Nirenberg and City Council now have until Jan. 1, 2019 to determine how to best implement the ordinance so the City is in full compliance by Aug. 1, 2019.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the Rivard Report.