Above: Mariel Esquivel speaks at San Antonio City Hall on Thursday.
San Antonio activists on Thursday submitted about twice the number of signatures necessary to get a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance on the ballot in November. About 100 people turned in dozens of white cardboard boxes containing some 144,000 signatures, which now await verification by the city.
“For two months, we’ve been canvassing communities,” said Alex Birnel, an organizer with MOVE San Antonio, a youth organization that helped gather the signatures. “We heard the message loud and clear: Paid sick time is coming to San Antonio.”
If approved, the ordinance would require employers in the city to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capped at six or eight days annually depending on the size of the business — just like the policy passed in February in Austin. The policy allows parents to take time off to care for sick children.
Jessica Milli, study director with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told the Observer that the San Antonio proposal should reach an estimated 130,000 workers who currently lack any paid leave, though her organization plans to release a definitive number in the coming months. With its large Hispanic and working-class populations, San Antonio workers likely stand to benefit from a paid sick leave policy even more than those in Austin.
“The people who can least afford to take an unpaid day off are the least likely to have paid sick leave,” said Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project. “We have the people power to make this a reality.”
A spokesperson for San Antonio’s city clerk said the office is still working with Bexar County officials to determine the exact number of signatures necessary to get the ordinance on the ballot, but activists and attorneys told the Observer the figure will be around 60,000 or 70,000 — less than half what was turned in Thursday.
When Austin City Council passed its ordinance in February, business owners and lobbyists came out in opposition. A similar fight is likely in San Antonio, but supporters say they’re confident voters will back the proposal in November. “[Opposing groups] are gonna throw money into a pot to make this not happen,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson with the AFL-CIO. “We may not have the money, but we have the power.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of business lobbyists and temp agencies — with the backing of Texas’ attorney general — are suing in Travis County to stop Austin’s ordinance from taking effect on October 1. The Texas Civil Rights Project has joined the case to defend the policy.
Activists are also gathering signatures in Dallas to get a similar measure on the November ballot there. Diana Ramirez with the Workers Defense Project told the Observer they’re “well on [their] way,” and will announce their results in June.
Bishop Joel Martinez, a longtime Texas labor activist who blessed the gathering on Thursday, said the paid sick leave effort joins a long legacy of fighting for marginalized laborers in the Lone Star State. “Texas has a sorry history in terms of labor relations, especially with the non-unionized and poorest workers,” he told the Observer. “So this grassroots effort — led by young people — is a sign of hope.”
Republican state legislators, including Representative Paul Workman of Austin and Senator Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, have already promised to dash that hope by filing bills in next year’s legislative session to strike down the ordinances and pre-empt others in the future. If Austin, Dallas and San Antonio manage to get their policies in place by late this year, those lawmakers would be attempting to yank paid sick days away from hundreds of thousands of Texans.