Most of the business community may have no idea what the Austin City Council put into law early Friday morning.
When they find out, Rebecca Melançon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, said, “For a lot of them it will be extremely painful.”
The council voted 9-2 to require most businesses in the city to provide each of their employees eight work days (or 64 hours) of paid sick leave. The new law included a compromise of six days (or 48 hours) of sick pay for employees of businesses with 15 or fewer employees.
Council member Greg Casar pushed his proposal to a vote in fewer than 30 days.
The law, which will take effect Oct. 1, is expected to affect as many as 50,000 local businesses.
Work Strong Austin, a coalition made up of progressive groups including the Workers Defense Project, estimated the law would benefit 223,000 or 37 percent of workers in Austin. Their website, however, provides nothing to determine how the coalition arrived at that figure.
The progressive journalist/activist site, ThinkProgress, said today Austin “made history,” becoming the first city in the South — and a rarity in the U.S. — for enacting mandatory paid sick leave.
State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, promised days before the vote he would champion a bill in the 2019 session of the Legislature to overturn the paid sick leave ordinance, “As long as the city continues to trample on the rights of the citizens.”
The Texas Monitor contacted Workman’s capitol office Friday morning seeking comment, but has not gotten a response at the time of publication.
Ellen Troxclair, one of two council members who voted against the ordinance (Ora Houston was the other), told The Texas Monitor she enthusiastically supports any state-level effort to rescind an ordinance that “was really unfortunate for so many reasons.”
“This was really a wake-up call for me that the city is run by a small group of socialist activists,” Troxclair said. “I think it should be shocking to everybody who this city is taking its marching orders from.”
There is no telling exactly the toll this law will exact on local businesses, Melançon told The Texas Monitor Friday morning. Casar provided no estimates of the costs, nor did city officials, although the council exempted more than 1,000 temporary and contracted city workers, who currently receive no paid sick leave.
The mandate will almost certainly force many business owners to shut down, lay off workers, adjust their current vacation and paid holiday plans, or drop plans for raises or benefits increases according to Melancon.
“Some were saying we passed an ordinance without knowing the costs or the unintended consequences,” Melançon said. “That isn’t true. This is going to happen and we do know the consequences.”
Melançon, whose organization represents about 800 small businesses, said she believed in their fervor to bring sick pay coverage to a greater number of people. Casar and the council majority ignored those consequences.
“They identified a pain point in our community and rather than working together to solve a problem, they shifted the pain from one segment to another.”
Casar, Mayor Steve Adler, and council members Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen, Sabino Renteria, Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Jimmy Flanigan and Alison Alter voted for mandatory paid sick leave.
The council cast its vote in the early morning hours because nearly 275 people signed up to speak and nearly 150 more came to City Hall to sign in favor or against the proposal.
Most of the crowd supported Casar’s motion. Several of those who spoke against it were booed and hissed. From the dais, Troxclair scolded the audience for behavior that was “so incredibly disrespectful.”
“I’ve talked to business owners who felt absolutely bullied, absolutely threatened throughout this process,” Troxclair said. “If the city has no idea how much this will cost or how it will be implemented, it’s not reasonable that businesses would have any idea how this will work.”
Council members abetted the hostile environment by openly supporting talk of boycotting businesses that didn’t fall in line with their thinking. Melançon said
She found it particularly painful because she considers herself a progressive who supports more sick leave for workers.
Surveys of their membership showed overwhelming support for keeping the local government out of the process of deciding how to apportion sick leave and other pay and benefits issues.
Speaking before the council, Melançon said she felt like Tank Man, the unidentified protester indelibly frozen in memory in front of a phalanx of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989.
“This felt just like a freight train flying through City Hall,” Melançon said. “It was speeded through without due process and without asking businesses what they could bring to the table. It was just, ‘Here is what we want.’”
Casar and his allies, locally and nationally, showed their thrill. Casar Tweeted this morning: VICTORY!! Austin is now the first city in the South to guarantee all workers in the private sector the right to paid sick days! #peoplepower #atxcouncil.
In short order, the official Twitter account of the Austin chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States, sent out a blast with a dig at those who spoke up against Casar’s proposal:
The Austin Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America would like to apologize to all small business owners for being mean to them today in council chambers. As the mayor said, it’s supposed to be a safe space, even if you’re a terrible person who doesn’t give paid sick leave.
And when word reached New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, he tweeted congratulations:
Kudos to @MayorAdler for bringing the movement for paid sick days to Austin, TX. No one should be forced to choose between caring for a loved one and paying rent. Healthy families are the heart of a healthy economy. Congratulations for a job well done.
According to ThinkProgress, passage of the ordinance “marks a victory for a growing progressive movement in Texas, one that surged last summer during a special session of the Texas State Legislature.”
Melançon disagrees. “We’re a smart, creative city and we do this by bullying and intimidation. That’s what makes me so sad. Everybody in Austin lost last night.”
Mark Lisherson can be reached at [email protected]