The Texas Observer

Texas Attorney General Joins Legal Fight Against Paid Sick Days

Attorney General Ken Paxton joined an existing lawsuit seeking to halt Austin's paid sick leave ordinance before taking effect in October.

Texas Attorney General Joins Legal Fight Against Paid Sick Days

On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton joined a coalition of business lobbyists and temp agencies in the legal battle to rip guaranteed paid sick days away from workers in the state’s capital. In Monday’s court filing, Paxton seeks to join an existing lawsuit against Austin’s paid sick policy, which passed in February and is set to provide paid leave to around 87,000 Austin workers who currently lack it on October 1.

“The Austin City Council’s disdain and blatant disregard for the rule of law is an attempt to unlawfully and inappropriately usurp the authority of the state lawmakers chosen by Texas voters,” Paxton proclaimed in a press release announcing his office’s motion to intervene.

Paxton’s move throws state resources behind the suit filed last week by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a Koch brothers-funded think tank based in Austin, on behalf of plaintiffs including the Texas Association of Business and a smattering of aggrieved staffing agencies. In their filings, Paxton and Co. argue that Austin’s paid sick leave policy — which requires employers to pay one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capping at six or eight days a year — is, in effect, an illegal minimum wage hike.

If that sounds confusing, it’s because the argument is convoluted. In Texas, it’s illegal for local jurisdictions to raise the general minimum wage beyond the state minimum — which is pegged to the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. The plaintiffs argue that requiring paid sick leave is equivalent to making private employers pay for hours not actually worked, thus raising the minimum wage for those hours from $0.00 to $7.25.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who led the paid sick days fight, told the Observer that he thinks the argument is unfounded. “Texas minimum wage laws are horrible laws,” Casar said. “But they clearly just have to do with the minimum wage, and don’t block us from doing something totally different — which is giving people the right to not have their pay docked when they’re sick.”

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar speaks in support of paid sick leave outside Austin City Hall on February 15, 2018.  Gus Bova

Casar also took issue with a second argument in the lawsuit: that the City of Austin has no “legitimate governmental interest” that justifies impinging upon Austin businesses. Casar equated that to not understanding “why working parents sometimes need to take a sick day.”

Work Strong Austin, a coalition that came together to push for the paid sick ordinance, chimed in with a statement after the initial lawsuit was filed last week. “After losing a historic vote that made Austin the first city in the U.S. South to require paid sick time, special interest groups linked to the Koch Brothers and Greg Abbott are now seeking to undermine the democratic process,” the group wrote. “We know Austin residents will ultimately prevail over this frivolous lawsuit.”

Paxton and the plaintiffs are seeking an injunction from a Travis County district court that would halt the ordinance before it takes effect in October. Whether they’re successful or not, Republican state lawmakers — including Representative Paul Workman of Austin and Senator Donna Campbell of New Braunfels — have promised to file bills in next year’s legislative session to strike down the policy and prevent other cities from following Austin’s lead.

“I will make good on my promise to file legislation on the first day possible to reverse this and the other liberal Austin policies they enacted,” Workman said in February. In doing so, he and Campbell would join a history of state lawmakers “pre-empting” local progressive policies.

Meanwhile, grassroots efforts are off the ground in both San Antonio and Dallas to get similar paid sick leave policies passed.