Bill to quash local worker benefits passes Texas House

by | May 27, 2021 | Policy, Texas Legislature

On Wednesday, the Texas House voted 94-52 to pass Senate Bill 14, legislation that prohibits local governments from passing laws that guarantee worker protections and benefits.

The intent of the bill, Republican lawmakers and Democratic co-author Rep. Eddie Lucio III have argued, is to do away with a “patchwork” of local employment benefits that exceed or conflict with state and federal law, which they say make it harder for businesses to be managed across counties and cities. 

Republican bill sponsor Rep. Phil King said the legislation would rein in local governments that are passing — or considering passing — ordinances related to overtime, paid sick leave, health insurance, and predictive scheduling (also known as fair workweek laws).

King promised the bill would not remove worker safety protections or nondiscrimination ordinances, since they don’t exceed existing state and federal law that offer those protections. 

In a show of good faith, King accepted several amendments to soften or limit the scope of the bill. 

Lucio III successfully introduced an amendment to protect local ordinances that guarantee rest breaks or water breaks. Rep. Rhetta Bowers success introduced an amendment to protect local nondiscrimination ordinances relating to hair texture or style.

And in a surprising move, Republican Rep. Brisco Cain, best known for his sweeping election conspiracy bill, introduced an amendment to allow for Fair Chance ordinances, or ordinances that prohibit employers from initially inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history. 

Despite those changes, labor groups are still concerned the legislation will erase the work they’ve done in their communities. 

“We’ve worked effectively with local authorities to ensure construction workers get access to a living wage, safe jobs, and career training through initiatives like Build Houston Better,” Hany Khalil, Executive Director of Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation told the Signal in a statement. 

“Unfortunately, conservative legislators in Austin are trying to roll back these common-sense local policies through bills like SB 14,” Khalil said. “We’re fed up with state interference hurting working families in Houston.”

Senate Bill 14 goes beyond most boilerplate deregulation bills. In addition to threatening existing local laws, it serves as a major obstacle to any future worker protections or benefits local governments are considering — or maybe haven’t even thought of yet.

For example, if Harris County wanted to pass a worker protection ordinance related to employee safety during hazardous chemical fires, Senate Bill 14 could very well stand in the way. 

That’s because the wording of the bill allows local governments to pass employment-related ordinances that don’t conflict with or exceed federal or state laws — but since local governments will undoubtedly exceed where nothing exists, Senate Bill 14 would serve as a preemptive wall for community and worker-led reforms. 

Emily Timm, co-founder and co-executive director of the labor advocacy group Workers Defense, called the legislation the biggest state-level assault on workers’ rights in recent times. 

“The protections for workers provided by the state of Texas are totally inadequate,” Timm told the Signal. “That’s exactly why local governments, cities, and counties need to be able to act and to respond to the urgent, pressing challenges faced by their workforces.”

“The state of Texas doesn’t provide a state right to a water break, and we’re a state that routinely has triple-digit temperatures that workers labor in every single summer,” Timm said. “And so, just saying that what the state does is good enough is not a reflection of the experience of working people in Texas.” 

Timm said there are other benefits, like parental leave, a higher minimum wage, and paid sick leave, that Texas lags far behind in and aren’t guaranteed by federal law. 

“Saying that the state is the ceiling, saying that the state is as good as the protections need to be, is totally inadequate,” Timm said. 

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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