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Sick-Time Politics: San Antonio City Council Passes a Sick-leave Ordinance That May Be DOA


AFL-CIO's Linda Chavez Thompson fires up the crowd in front of City Hall after Working Texans for Paid Sick Time delivered its signed petitions to city officials earlier this year. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • AFL-CIO's Linda Chavez Thompson fires up the crowd in front of City Hall after Working Texans for Paid Sick Time delivered its signed petitions to city officials earlier this year.
Editor's Note: The following is City Current, a column of opinion and analysis.

To anybody who doesn’t pay close attention to City Hall, it looked last week like city council passed a paid sick-time ordinance with the same kind of deliberation and attention to detail that Donald Trump devotes to his 5 a.m. tweets.

There’s some truth to that.

By a vote of 9-2, council members decided to plunge local government directly into the operation of private companies. And they did it without knowing how many companies would be affected, what the costs would be or how exactly the city would enforce the new ordinance.

Councilman Manny Pelaez, a labor and employment attorney, went as far as saying the ordinance probably wouldn’t hold up in court. For good measure, the District 8 councilman tweeted the next day: “… The ordinance is almost certainly going to be preempted and gutted.”

Later that Friday, he added, also in a Tweet, “Paid-sick-leave is on life support” after a state appeals court put Austin’s ordinance on hold. The Austin city council adopted its paid sick-time measure in February, and business opponents promptly sued, arguing that the state can require employers to cover their workers’ sick time, but not cities.

Pelaez agreed with that argument – right before he voted in favor of the ordinance at hand.

Thursday’s vote to mandate paid sick leave for all but San Antonio’s smallest companies was the clearest indication yet of how scrambled our politics are as we head into the midterm elections.

What’s done the scrambling? The know-nothing populism that helped put Trump in the White House; the strong sense that working people have to take policy into their own hands if they want government to address their needs; and the volatile racing fuel of social media.

This is how screwed up it’s gotten at the local level: Some council members, including Pelaez and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, felt their best option was voting for a measure that was still weighed down with big, unanswered questions, including whether it would help or hurt the local economy. While not every council member who voted “yes” was as torn – Shirley Gonzales, Rey Saldaña and Ana Sandoval spoke movingly in favor of paid sick leave – the fact is they did so with almost no information or forethought. The city’s fiscal analysis, the plan for how the city’s Metropolitan Health District will enforce the ordinance, the discussion with businesses and labor – all that will come later, weeks or months after council’s decision.

I asked Jeff Coyle, director of the city’s government and public affairs department, why city staff hadn’t attempted to answer council members’ questions about what kind of punch the ordinance would pack.

“State law requires a fiscal impact analysis for charter changes, not ordinances,” Coyle said in a written statement. “From a practical standpoint, the charter petitions directly affect the finances and operations of city government, while the paid sick leave ordinance applies to private employers, so analyzing the potential fiscal impact to the city is much more complex.”

Nirenberg seemed to understand how messy this decision was, and how it must have looked to voters.

“Given these two choices today, I will vote for the measure,” he said. “Doing so is the only viable solution that gives San Antonio the opportunity to move forward by responding fairly to this petition while maintaining the flexibility to craft a San Antonio-specific policy before it takes effect – if the [Texas] legislature doesn’t resolve the matter this spring.”

That was another complication – the reasonable, and probably correct, argument that this wasn’t local government’s decision to make, but the state’s.

To go back to basics: Working Texans for Paid Sick Leave, a coalition that includes Texas AFL-CIO, the Texas Organizing Project, MOVE Texas and Planned Parenthood, collected more than 140,000 signatures in April and May to force the issue. After the city clerk certified 70,419 of the signatures, council had two choices: pass paid sick leave as an ordinance or, if council members said no way, put it on the November 6 ballot and let voters decide.

That’s complicated enough. Now mash up paid sick leave with the fire union’s three proposed amendments to the city charter.

As you might recall, the amendments would curb future city managers’ pay and require them to leave after eight years; make it easier to put city ordinances, including spending decisions, to a public referendum; and require the city to take disputes with unions to mediation, not court.

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association collected more than 100,000 signatures to put the measures on the November ballot. Most council members held their noses and obliged, voting unanimously last week to send the poison pills to voters. They then immediately turned to paid sick leave. (Here’s not the place to go into the union’s shady means of paying for the signature-gathering efforts.)

It proved nearly impossible to separate the firefighters’ amendments from the Working Texans coalition’s handiwork.

That’s because of the concern among amendment haters – namely, council members and others in the politico-business complex – that having paid sick leave on the ballot would attract a bunch of voters who usually don’t show up for midterm elections. The thinking goes that, once they start poking around the other ballot items, they might decide they like the idea of cutting the city manager’s pay.

This fear was muted Thursday, but it had been a major factor in talks behind the scenes.

There was also some thought that next year’s Republican-controlled legislature would work even faster to kill the city’s paid sick-time law if council members put their stamp of approval on it, instead of voters. After all, who wants to be seen under-cutting the will of voters?

And that’s the saddest, least understood part of last week’s spectacle: For all the cheering of supporters who worked hard to make mandatory paid sick time a reality, council’s vote was probably their high point – and even that was downbeat.

With the prospect of legal challenges and conservative state lawmakers going ballistic over the mandate, Pelaez was probably right when he said: “I believe this is dead on arrival in Austin.”

A victim of our screwed-up politics.

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