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City Council Approves Changes To San Antonio's Sick Leave Ordinance

Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
Joleen Garcia of Texas Organizing Project leads a chant outside the city council chambers following Thursday's vote.

The San Antonio City Council approved changes to its embattled sick leave ordinance on Thursday.

The decision changes its name to “Sick and Safe Leave” and includes the same mandates for all businesses regardless of size. Businesses must offer a minimum of 56 hours of sick leave per year to employees. The ordinance was championed by worker’s rights groups and chastised by members of the business community.

The vote passed by 8-3 with council members Rebecca Viagra, Clayton Perry and Manny Pelaez voting against the changes. It takes effect on Dec. 1.

Multiple council members praised the ordinance as necessary for working families while others decried it as harmful to businesses.

District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval called attention to what she called challenges the city faces, including economic segregation, poverty and domestic violence.

“Once implemented, Sick and Safe Leave will help us on every single one of those fronts, it is one of those policies that can be not just helpful but transformative,” she said.

District 10 Councilman Perry noted the city already passed the ordinance last year and the revisions were the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. He said the ordinance would negatively impact small businesses.

“Small businesses just need to have the option to adjust based on their own business challenges and not be impacted by what this city council deems to be effective for our businesses – which by the way – employs all of these employees,” Perry said.

Both Perry and Sandoval suggested amendments to the ordinance. Perry wanted businesses with 49 employees or less to be exempt from the ordinance. That measure failed. Sandoval suggested making paid interns eligible for the sick leave benefit; that did pass in the final approval of the revisions

The ordinance was first approved in August 2018. It was petition driven; gathering over 140,000 signatures. Council approved the ordinance instead of sending it to voters.  

The ordinance drew instant ire from some businesses. It’s gone under several revisions via a commission created by the mayor. The working group consisted of business owners and civil rights activists who drafted the changes based on community feedback over the last several months.

Before Thursday’s vote, Richard Perez, president of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce said there was no middle ground to having a sick leave ordinance.

“It’s not because the business community doesn’t support sick leave, in fact many businesses have sick leave, what we don’t support is the municipal government whose job is the pave streets, hire police, do public safety, and parks, dictating to private businesses what should be doing for their compensation and benefits,”

A lawsuit was filed against it by several business groups, which is still pending. It was originally slated to take effect two months ago but the city agreed with the plaintiffs to a four-month delay to December.

Ricardo Cedello is the attorney representing the plaintiffs. He said Thursday’s changes did not exempt the ordinance from state law like the Texas Minimum Wage Act which is the basis for the lawsuit.

“The city has simply not been able to write its way around that preemption, so I don’t this ordinance is any more valid than the one it replaces,” Cedillo said.

Cedillo said it would be likely he’d again request the city to delay the ordinance until after the Texas Supreme Court rules on a similar ordinance in Austin.

The Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas, two groups who helped gather the necessary number of petitions to create the ordinance held a victory rally outside the city council chambers following the vote.

Joleen Garcia, an organizer for TOP, said the ordinance would benefit workers and their families throughout San Antonio.

“We’re very proud of that, we’re very proud that our council members heard from the public that this is what they wanted all working families to be covered an that was the result today,” she said.

Garcia added she believed the ordinance would survive the lawsuit.

“We believe on the merits of the case we will be victorious,” she said.

Her sentiments were shared by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg who said the revisions had material changes that took into consideration concerns from the business community but kept the spirit of the ordinance. 

“Considering the fact that members of the community from all sides of this debate came forward again in good faith and that we addressed the concerns and came up with a strong consensus document, I am confident that we have come up with a solution to the challenges that were presented by the other side,” Nirenberg said.

The city and business groups could be back in court in November.

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