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San Antonio's Paid Sick Leave Rollout On Schedule As Legal Challenge Asks For Pause

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Members of San Antonio's Paid Sick Leave Commission meet for its regular weekly meeting

Planning for San Antonio’s paid sick leave ordinance continues as a lawsuit has been filed trying to stop it from taking effect on August 1.  

The City and its Metro Health department are working to implement the ordinance in less than two weeks with uncertainty of the ordinance’s fate. Commissioners assigned to oversee the city’s paid sick leave ordinance met on Wednesday for the first time since the lawsuit was filed this week. At the start of the meeting, commissioners went into executive session to discuss the suit in private.

Danielle Hargrove is the chair of the commission. She said a lawsuit was expected due to a similar case in Austin.

“It really didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that, that was likely to happen. So, we were prepared for that and we’re just waiting to kind of see how the city attorney’s office wants to respond but we’re going to keep doing the work until we’re told not to,” Hargrove said.

Austin’s ordinance was passed in 2018 . However, like in San Antonio, business groups sued. While a district court allowed the ordinance to continue, Texas’ 3rd Court of Appeals issued an injunction stopping the ordinance from taking effect.

Austin is now waiting for the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in and offer its opinion.

San Antonio’s paid sick leave commission is made of appointees selected by the San Antonio City Council. They include business leaders and grassroots organizers, including those who started the petition that made the ordinance law.

Joleen Garcia is one of those organizers. She’s part of the Texas Organizing Project and Working Texans for Paid Sick Leave. The groups gathered more than 144,000 signatures to create the ordinance

Garcia said the lawsuit is working counter to the progress of the commission's goal of revising and refining the ordinance.

“I just feel that the lawsuit is an outlier sector of the business community that just doesn’t want to see our working families, our hard working families, finally paid sick days,” she said.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, was initiated by several business groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors of South Texas and others. The groups said the ordinance violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act.

Ricardo Cedillio is their attorney. He said the suit argues businesses cannot be forced to pay beyond an employee’s hourly wage for the number of hours actually worked.

“That state law incorporates the federal Fair Labor Standards Act requirements and it therefore preempts any local government from going beyond [it],” Cedillo said.

The ordinance requires San Antonio businesses to offer an hour of paid sick time to employees for every 30 hours worked. Depending on the size of the business, employers must offer either a cap of 48 or 64 earned sick hours. If they don’t, a business could face a fine of $500 per violation.

The ordinance only applies to businesses in San Antonio and not the surrounding cities or unincorporated Bexar County.

Cedillo said he believes all the paid sick leave ordinances in Texas – including one in Dallas– will ultimately be taken down by the Texas Supreme Court.

“We think the Supreme Court will in fact be taking this issue and making a decision and it makes a lot of common sense just to stand down from implementing this ordnance. It has tremendous costs to both the city and to private businesses,” Cedillo said.

But the city is moving forward with implementation. The path to get to this point has been paved with uncertainty ranging from the impact of the Austin court case to legislative intervention.

At the state level, there was support among legislators to keep municipally enacted paid sick leave ordinances from taking effect or being created. 

(). However, the legislature failed to pass a law by the time the session ended.

The ripples of the lawsuit are being felt throughout the city’s business sectors. Paula Gold-Williams, the chair of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce felt it would be best to step down after it was filed.

Gold-Williams was in an interesting position. She is President and CEO of CPS Energy; the power utility for San Antonio and Bexar County. CPS Energy is wholly owned by the City of San Antonio.

Gold-Williams wrote in a statement  she could not Chair the chamber while the city was being sued over an ordinance the chamber opposed.

“The recently escalated lawsuit about paid sick leave between the City of San Antonio and a group of business plaintiffs is a very complicated development,” Gold-Williams said. “I have prudently decided that under these circumstances, it is not helpful for me to be in the middle of a serious and formalized legal conflict between CPS Energy’s parent organization and its customers.”

The chamber represents the interests of businesses in San Antonio. In a statement, Chamber President Richard Perez said he was saddened to see Gold-Williams step down but understood her decision.

“While the Chamber is not a party to the Paid Sick Leave lawsuit against the city, we are supportive of it, as are many of our member companies,” Perez said. “Paula’s commitment to CPS Energy is and should be her top priority, and we recognize the challenge she faced being in the middle of a legal conflict between her parent organization and the business community.” 

The fate of the ordinance will now be up to a district judge in San Antonio. The city and business groups are expected to have their first day in court on July 24.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules