OP-ED: Austin sick leave policy another cleanup for Legislature

OP-ED: Austin sick leave policy another cleanup for Legislature

Published in the American-Statesman on February 24, 2018

By Russell Withers
Special to the American-Statesman

Once again, the Austin City Council has decided to run the city’s private businesses instead of the city of Austin. If it isn’t careful, it’s going to run those private businesses right out of town, like it did to Uber. Thankfully, the Texas Legislature stepped in on the ride-hailing issue. And while mandatory paid sick leave for private employers may not result in companies leaving the city — they’re not all as mobile as Uber — it’s one more mandate and compliance burden for those businesses — and one more distraction for a city that already thinks traffic congestion can be solved with more bike lanes.

Austin’s new ordinance requires private employers with 15 or fewer employees to provide six full eight-hour work days’ — 48 hours — worth of paid sick leave. The rest must provide up to eight days — 64 hours. The city determined that employees will accrue paid sick leave at a rate of one hour per 30 hours worked.

Paid sick leave is a good policy for businesses to have. Not only does it help keep employees healthy by encouraging their co-workers to stay home when they are sick, but it’s a nice benefit to have generally. It makes an employer more attractive to prospective employees.

The fact that paid sick leave is good policy is why most employers already offer it. The private sector provides paid sick leave to 68 percent of workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Given that 76 percent receive paid vacation and 77 percent receive paid holidays, it is clear most private businesses place a high level of value on these benefits without a government mandate in most cases. But the fact that many people agree on paid sick leave as a good policy does not change the fact that the government should not impose it on all private businesses in the City.

Rather than interfering in the affairs of small businesses, the City Council should focus on getting its own house in order. Austin is a great place to live, but it ranks as having the 18th most-congested traffic in the nation. Analytics company Inrix identifies 1,727 traffic “hotspots” in Austin and estimates that traffic congestion will cost $8.4 billion by 2026, calculated by wasted time, lost fuel, and carbon emissions. The downtown homelessness problem increased by 50 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to data from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. Austin’s plastic bag ban from a few years ago is not a clear success, as the reusable plastic bags — which are more difficult to recycle and have a larger carbon footprint than the banned bags — have replaced the banned bags, according to a study conducted by Austin Resource Recovery.

And, of course, there’s the embarrassing episode of running Uber out of the city with unnecessarily burdensome business requirements. In 2017, the Texas Legislature stepped in and nullified the Austin ordinance with much more reasonable state-level requirements. It looks as though legislators will act again with respect to the paid sick leave ordinance. Rep. Paul Workman has already called the ordinance an “overreach,” and pledged to file legislation to preempt the city’s actions. Likewise, Sen. Donna Campbell is “fully prepared to pass statewide legislation to stop Austin’s intrusion into the private sector.”

Austin increased its population by 37.7 percent in the decade ending in 2015. It ranked first among the 50 largest U.S. cities based on net migration as a percentage of total population. This growth shows no signs of slowing down. The business community is keeping up, doing its part to provide new opportunities — yet the city is more focused on creating new mandates for those businesses than it is on addressing the issues that it is actually responsible for solving. Paid sick leave may be good policy. There are a lot of policies that are good for business, employers and workers. That is none of the city of Austin’s business. This ordinance is one more mandate — one more straw to make the burden a little bit heavier. It’s a shame that the Legislature is going to have to lighten the load again.

Withers is a policy analyst at the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute in Austin.

Photo: Ralph Barrera