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The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

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6 Comments

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    Not only sick leave, but it’s time for single payer, calling Bernie Sanders. People should realize now that having a bunch of sick people running around without treatment doesn’t just hurt those lay abouts who can’t bother to get a job, but puts everyone at risk.

  2. Christopher Busby says:

    If you’re involved in politics but not involved in at least one fight for the state house of representatives then you’re not really in the game.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    “I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. ”

    Why not hit business now, while business is already on the ropes? Add one more expense for all those small businesses, one more hurdle for them now, while we are still in crisis? I mean, so what if they don’t reopen and there are no jobs because small businessmen can’t reopen? At least people won’t have to work without guaranteed sick leave.

    Isn’t it more important to protect workers by keeping business from taking advantage of them, vs. letting them work with no sick leave? It seems like now is the perfect time to enact new, costly rules for business. $ 15/hr minimum wage? Yes! Pile it all on now, so we don’t let this crisis go to waste. In fact, doing everything we can to make sure that jobs stay scarce seems to be the best way to convince the public that we need universal health care.

    Look, you can’t get a job anyway, so why not accept the government’s offer of ‘free’ healthcare, and a universal basic income, too, while we are at it?

    Allowing small business to bounce back and flourish will just increase the income and wealth gap, but if we keep small business from reopening, that levels the playing field, making the income of erstwhile business owners more on par with the incomes of the people they once employed…..zero, in both cases. The lady who used to own the shop braiding hair will now be more equal with the women who used to work for her, that did not have paid sick leave.

    “Now the trees are all kept equal,

    By hatchet, ax, and saw.”

  4. Ross says:

    So Bill, I assume then that you are totally fine with your waitress serving you while she has the flu, since that’s the only way she can pay her bills. Or, I assume you have no problem with any other business making people work while they are sick.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Ross,

    Is this the first time, in the history of mankind, that a bad virus has gone around? Is this a brand new issue that no employer or employee has ever had to face before? There has never been some kind of informal resolution of an issue like this before? I find that difficult to believe, frankly.

    Whatever people did before seems to have worked out OK, given that society is still here. The only thing that is new is our newfound emphasis of not letting a crisis go to waste, and to use it to do things we never could have imagined doing before. That’s the takeaway here.

    If you watched the Joe/Hillary ‘virtual town hall’ yesterday, you’d know that.

  6. Jules says:

    Shut up Bill.