Above: “It is disingenuous to say this is about patchwork. If this is about patchwork, pass a statewide sick days law,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar told legislators.
The Texas GOP has finally returned its attention to its perpetual war on workers. After unexpected delays and with less than a month left in session, Republicans are rushing to achieve one of their top legislative priorities: banning local labor ordinances, including the mandatory paid sick day rules enacted by Austin, San Antonio and, most recently, Dallas.
The legislation — which was reconfigured from an omnibus measure into a package of four separate bills — passed out of the Senate last month after stalling for weeks amid concerns that the proposal would imperil local nondiscrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people.
Those concerns remain, but House Republicans are nonetheless putting their foot on the gas. The House State Affairs Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the package of preemption bills that would cumulatively ban local governments from requiring employers to provide any sort of employment benefits beyond what the state affords, including paid sick days, advanced notice of scheduling and mandatory water breaks. It would also prohibit “fair chance hiring” ordinances that protect job applicants with criminal records.
“I can understand why an employee may want [these benefits]. But you have to understand how Texas works. How our climate works,” said Committee Chair Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican. Business owners, corporate lobbyists and conservative think tanks warn that allowing cities to set individual labor laws creates a confusing patchwork of burdensome regulations that can kill jobs and hurt small businesses.
The hearing quickly grew tense as critics rejected that argument in testimony as bad-faith fear mongering. Workers talked about being forced to choose between working while sick or injured and losing out on a day’s pay. Advocates warned that LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances in several cities could be gutted and progressive local officials testified to the importance of local control.
Republicans on the committee were often dismissive, even hostile, to those concerns, insisting that labor policies like paid sick leave are job killers. They brushed away the notion that democratic control is critical to local governments. “I don’t think it’s democracy; it’s dictatorial,” Weatherford Republican Phil King sniped.
An Austin restaurant owner and paid sick leave proponent pointed to evidence that such policies actually help drive the local economy by increasing worker productivity and reducing turnover. In response, Phelan said, “I don’t see any logic to your argument. I’m not even going to argue with you.”
Austin City Council member Greg Casar has led the push to enact progressive policies in Austin and around the state — including the city’s fair chance hiring ordinance, a mandatory rest break for construction workers and paid sick days. “When you ran for office, was it really something you looked forward to take away people’s right to a water break on a construction site?” Casar asked Republicans during his testimony. Preemption of local labor laws is “not only wrong, it’s also highly unpopular,” he said.
Casar cited a Texas Tribune poll that suggests 71 percent of Texans support paid sick leave ordinances, including a majority of Republicans. Casar pointed to Arizona, where statewide voters approved a paid sick days ballot measure while also overwhelmingly backing Donald Trump for president.
“It is disingenuous to say this is about patchwork. If this is about patchwork, pass a statewide sick days law,” Casar said, pointing to states like California that have done so. “I don’t live in California, for a reason,” Phelan interjected. “I live in Texas for a reason.” As he sees it, the whole point of these bills is to prevent the Californication of the Lone Star State.
Phelan also seemed to wave away concerns that the lack of explicit exemptions for local nondiscrimination ordinances would leave those policies open to legal challenges. Austin first implemented its protections 35 years ago, Phelan said, which have survived in the courts since then. To the LGBTQ advocates who testified, he asked: Why would this be any different?
Preemption was supposed to be an easy layup for Republicans this session, a way to show the business lobby that it could still be counted on to deliver results after the 2017 session went off the rails. But then Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick nixed language in Senator Brandon Creighton’s original preemption bill, SB15, that had carved out protections for local nondiscrimination ordinances. That sparked fears of another Bathroom Bill fiasco. SB 15 quickly became toxic and it languished in the Senate. Eventually, Creighton broke SB 15 into four new piecemeal bills while insisting that he had no intention of targeting nondiscrimination ordinances. The Senate approved each bill along party lines. Meanwhile, major corporations like Facebook and American Airlines said they will oppose the legislation if it doesn’t include language protecting nondiscrimination ordinances.
Late Wednesday night, the state affairs committee reconvened. Just before midnight, the committee approved a substitute version of SB 2486 — which preempts cities from requiring businesses to follow certain standards for scheduling shifts — that reintroduced language explicitly protecting local nondiscrimination ordinances. The bill passed 10-2. Two Democrats, Richard Peña Raymond and Joseph Deshotel, voted in favor. Democratic Representatives Eddie Rodriguez and Ana Hernandez opposed the measure. The remaining three bills were left pending.
With a contentious 2020 election on the horizon, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen doesn’t appear eager to make vulnerable Republicans take risky votes if it’s not necessary. “They’ve seen the polls,” a liberal operative who has followed the legislation closely, told me. “It’s purely a political calculus: does this vote beat members in swing districts?”
Democrats hope that the political risk for Republicans will give them an unusual amount of leverage. “I think [Republicans] are in a really interesting bind because there’s businesses being very, very vocal on the NDO front and then there’s their constituents being very vocal on the paid sick leave front,” said Representative Diego Bernal, a San Antonio Democrat. “So, good luck with that.”