Judge Blocks San Antonio’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance

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Shari Biediger / Rivard Report

Judge Peter Sakai of the 225th District Court issues an injunction on paid sick leave.

Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai on Friday granted a temporary injunction to local business groups, blocking the City of San Antonio once again from implementing its paid sick leave ordinance.

Sakai ordered that a trial date be set as soon as possible. In civil cases, that requires all parties in the case to coordinate with the court clerk to choose a date, which could delay the matter for months.

The Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance would have required all employers to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked starting Dec. 1.

“I remain steadfast in my support of sick and safe leave,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “It is good for working families, businesses and the community. While I am waiting to hear an analysis from the City Attorney’s Office, I believe in San Antonio’s ordinance. I will continue fighting to provide sick and safe leave for San Antonio workers.”

A coalition of local business associations and staffing agencies filed a lawsuit in July and fought for the temporary injunction despite a citizen-led commission’s attempts to revise the original ordinance passed in 2018. They argued that paid sick leave is a wage by definition and is thus preempted by the state’s minimum wage law. 

“I’m not surprised [by the ruling],” said the plaintiffs’ attorney Ricardo Cedillo. “This is the result that we expected. That doesn’t mean that we’re taking victory laps or anything like that, OK?

“We have a lot of respect for the position of the city council and the citizen’s groups. This decision is a reflection that this is a fight that doesn’t belong in the courts, it doesn’t belong in City Hall. It has to be waged at the state level.”

A statement from two plaintiffs in the suit, the South Texas Merchants Association and the Association of Convenience Store Retailers, said they are encouraged by the ruling: “Employers of all sizes can now focus on serving their customers instead of shouldering the burden of an unconstitutional ordinance.”

City Council voted 8-3 Oct. 3 to approve a revised ordinance that incorporated recommendations for changes in the law from a citizen-led Paid Sick Leave Commission. Among the council members voting against the ordinance was Manny Pelaez (D8), who is a labor attorney.

“For more than a year, I have warned that adopting a mandatory PSL ordinance would result in taxpayer-funded litigation and cautioned that this ordinance, albeit well-intentioned, was prone to be blocked by the courts,” he said Friday. “I am already hearing some people express the idea that the City submit this ruling to the Fourth Court of Appeals. I have no reason to believe that the appellate court will reverse today’s ruling, and as such, cannot support committing more resources towards protracted litigation.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) filed a request Friday afternoon that asks that the City consider requiring that companies under contract with the City and those which receive operational funding from it implement a similar sick and safe leave policy. 

San Antonio suffers from high levels of domestic violence [and] high levels of poverty, and a policy like sick and safe time will help us on both of these fronts,” Sandoval said at a press conference.

Councilmembers Shirley Gonzales (D5), Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), and Roberto Treviño (D1) signed on their support of the request and attended the press conference.

They also called for the City to establish a technical assistance program to help businesses set up their own, voluntary sick leave policy. 

However, Pelaez said later in response to Sandoval’s proposal, such a policy could require bidders on local public contracts to violate state employment laws.

“That’ll be how they attack the proposed ordinance and how they’ll win,” he said. “There is no how-to manual to making public policy. But if there were a manual, I’m sure it wouldn’t say: ‘When you receive a disappointing court ruling, you should jerk the knee by announcing a major policy initiative on the same day.'”

At a Nov. 7 hearing before Sakai, attorney Barry Snell defended the law on behalf of the City of San Antonio, saying the ordinance is not an increased salary or wage. “They [employees] don’t get to keep it – it’s use-it-or-lose-it,” Snell said.   

Following Friday’s ruling, City Manager Erik Walsh said working families should be afforded the opportunity to accrue sick and safe leave so they can seek medical help, safety from harm, and tend to ill family members.

MOVE Texas and the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) had pushed for the ordinance, gathering enough signatures in 2018 to put the measure to a vote, but the City Council instead passed a paid sick leave ordinance, then formed the citizens’ group to revise it with an aim to stave off potential litigation and satisfy business groups that opposed it.

“More than 140,000 San Antonians petitioned the city for the paid sick time ordinance that was successfully passed through the city council; we will continue to fight to ensure the voices of working people are heard and valued in this city,” said Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas.

A 2018 ruling by the 3rd Court of Appeals found that Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance was unconstitutional and violated State minimum wage law. The City of Austin has appealed to the state’s highest court. 

“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision to enjoin the ordinance,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said Friday. “We will evaluate our legal options going forward, including appealing this decision to the Fourth Court of Appeals.” 

Later on Friday, Nirenberg said he asked Walsh to look at ways the City can provide sick and safe leave protections in spite of the injunction.

“Even while the legal maneuvers surrounding the city’s ordinance continue, I would like to work with City Council to assess possible options that would cover as many San Antonio workers as possible by placing sick and safe leave protections in city contracts and other similar instances,” he said.

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