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San Antonio’s Sick Leave Ordinance Now Rests In The Hands Of A Judge

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Judge Peter Sakai listens to opening arguments during Thursday's hearing

A San Antonio ordinance allowing workers to earn paid sick leave is now in the hands of a Bexar County District judge. The Sick and Safe Leave ordinance is set to go into effect on Dec. 1 unless the judge grants an injunction.

The plaintiffs include 12 business groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors of South Texas, the American Staffing Association and Hawkins Associates. Their claim says the ordinance circumvents state law, specifically, the Texas Minimum Wage Act. Officials with the city said the ordinance provides a benefit, and not a wage, under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. District Court Judge Peter Sakai ended the Thursday hearing without issuing a ruling.

The ordinance allows workers inside the San Antonio city limits to earn one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Ricardo Cedillo, the plaintiff’s attorney says paying an employee for sick time forces an employer to pay above the minimum wage.

“You are in effect paying him more for the hours that (he) did work,” he said.

During court, Cedillo and attorneys for the State of Texas argued the San Antonio ordinance is preempted by state law and if it were to stand, would allow a patchwork of different wage requirements across Texas.

“The State of Texas has the right to have uniformity,” Cedillo said. “You don’t want the minimum being offered in Austin to be different than in San Antonio putting all businesses at competitive advantage or disadvantage.”

San Antonio’s City Attorney Andy Segovia said the ordinance follows the guidelines of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

“The Texas Minimum Wage Acts says that the minimum wage will be established in accordance with the FLSA and the FLSA, most interpretations under that say a benefit like paid sick leave is not a wage, our argument is pretty simple,” said San Antonio’s City Attorney Andy Segovia.  “We’re not preempted.”

This is the second time the ordinance has been in court. In July, adifferent judge approved delaying the ordinance until December.  The city spent the last five months revising the ordinance but the changes did not satisfy the plaintiff before continuing into Thursday’s court hearing.

The San Antonio City Council approved the initial paid sick leave ordinance in August of 2018. Several citizen groups like the Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas gathered more than 140,000 signatures required to make the city council take a mandatory vote on the initiative. The council passed it instead of sending it to voters.

A city commission was created to refine the ordinance over the course of the next year.

An initial rollout date was set for this past August but the business groups filed their lawsuit asking for the judge to place the ordinance on hold. However, the City agreed to a delay of December in the ordinance to work on the revisions in hopes of surviving a court challenge.

Those revisions, including the name change to sick and safe leave, were passed last month. The business groups continued with its lawsuit leading to today’s hearing on injunction.

MOVE Texas and the Texas Organizing Project joined the case as interveners in the city’s side and were allowed to offer testimony.

San Antonio is not the only city to have its own paid sick leave ordinance. Each of the paid sick leave ordinances is tangled up in the legal system. Texas’sThird Court of Appeals ruled an Austin ordinance violates the state constitution as reported by KUT.

The Supreme Court has asked for briefings but not a full hearing.

In Dallas, sick leave is in effect but its facing a legal challenge of its own according to KERA.

The plaintiffs want to block the ordinance until the Texas Supreme court makes a ruling on the Austin ordinance. However, the Ed Guzman, deputy city attorney for the City of San Antonio says there’s no guarantee the high court will take it up.

“If it goes up to them it’s being brought up only on procedural matters so we may not even get to the substance of what’s here so the fact that Mr. Cedillo is asking that there’s a delay until the supreme court rules, we may not get a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court so he’s essentially asking for a definite delay,” Guzman said.

Cedillo however, has confidence the Supreme Court will hear it.

“I have every confidence in the world that this ordinance is preempted and there is nothing in the jurisprudence in the state that would let any lawyer think anything to the contrary,” Cedillo said.

Judge Sakai said he’d likely issue a ruling before December but hinted his decision could come before Thanksgiving.

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