Texas Republicans take aim at local worker protections with major deregulation bill

by | Mar 24, 2021 | Austin, Dallas, Policy, Politics, San Antonio, Texas Legislature

Texas Republicans in the Senate Committee on Business & Commerce were giddy with excitement Tuesday afternoon over Senate Bill 14, a massive deregulation bill that would prohibit local governments from passing or enforcing laws that create basic protections for workers.

The legislation is a response to local ordinances passed by Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio that guarantee paid sick leave for workers of private employers. But the two-page bill is short enough and written broadly enough to ensnare many more basic worker protection laws that have passed or are being considered in cities and counties. 

“Senate Bill 14 would essentially undo a decades’ worth of organizing and advocacy led by low-wage workers in Texas,” said Stephanie Gharakhanian, special counsel at Workers Defense Action Fund, an advocacy group for low-wage and immigrant workers that fought for those protections.

Existing antidiscrimination employment rules, a 2010 Austin ordinance guaranteeing construction workers a 10-minute break to rest for every four hours worked, and another local rule passed in 2016 banning employers from inquiring into an applicant’s criminal history are just some of the worker-led protections that would be made defunct by Senate Bill 14. 

“We are in the middle of a pandemic, and lawmakers — without batting an eyelash — still feel like they can talk about the importance of taking a worker’s right to paid sick time,” Gharakhanian told the Signal. 

The legislation was introduced into a public hearing Tuesday by committee member state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), one of the bill’s authors. 

“Senate Bill 14 prohibits municipalities from mandating that private business must offer certain employment benefits and predictive scheduling results,” Creighton said at the beginning of the hearing, confusingly promising moments later that the legislation would not take away anyone’s benefits.

Predictive scheduling laws (also known as fair workweek laws) have been adopted by at least five major cities and the state of Oregon to combat volatile work hours faced by low-wage workers. No Texas cities or counties have followed suit, but Senate Bill 14 would prevent them from doing so.

It would also stifle other worker protections and benefits currently being considered or fought for by local leaders in Texas, said Greg Casar, an Austin City Council member who helped pass the city’s paid sick leave and fair chance hiring ordinances now jeopardized by Senate Bill 14.

“Moving forward we want to protect people from being discriminated against based on their eviction history,” Casar told the Signal. “Not just in Austin but across the state we know that there is so much housing insecurity, a lot of that is caused by the pandemic and economic crisis. We want to make sure that folks, just because they’ve been evicted, have equal access to jobs. We should really be considering how it is we protect people’s rights to more parental leave in our community. Those things just couldn’t even be part of the conversation [with SB 14].” 

Those concerns were shared by AFL-CIO Legislative Director René Lara in his testimony to the Senate business committee. 

“It has a very ambitious aim,” Lara said of the bill. “It aims to capture any and all employment policies, not just the ones that I mentioned, but any future employment policies that might benefit workers.”

He said the bill threatened civil service, meet and confer agreements and collecting bargaining contracts currently under the law. 

“We just feel that this is the wrong time to do something like this, we’ve gone through a pandemic, a winter storm, workers have really suffered, and to tell them that they can’t look to their local government for a few labor improvements is just the wrong message to send at this time by this legislature,” Lara said.

Republicans backing the bill have cited the pandemic’s impact on small businesses and the “patchwork” of ordinances that they say would confuse companies and scare them from moving to Texas.

“I see this bill as a belt and suspenders to hold off on egregious governmental policies that restrain or handcuff our private business,” said Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) during the hearing. 

The alarming rhetoric of government overreach falls flat considering the paid sick leave ordinances passed by Austin and other Texas cities are currently held up in court, and if they weren’t, would only guarantee a few days of paid sick leave a year. In both San Antonio and Dallas, for example, paid sick leave time would be capped at 64 hours a year for businesses with more than 15 employees, and 48 hours for businesses with 15 or fewer employees.

“Just like the minimum wage exists, just like we have child labor laws, we have to put in some basic restrictions in order to make sure that citizens are protected at a basic level,” Jonathan Lewis, a senior policy analyst with the progressive thinktank Every Texan, told the Signal.

He said studies in other cities like New York and Seattle where paid sick leave was implemented have shown such protections have not led to businesses shutting down. 

“What this really leads to is a race to the bottom for Texas workers,” Lewis said. “Texas continues this trend of ignoring the needs of its citizens and putting corporations and profits over them.” 

One 2014 study conducted by the University of Washington that surveyed employers found that Seattle’s 2011 paid sick leave ordinance was not only popular among employers and employees, but there was also no evidence that the local rule caused employers to go out of business or leave Seattle. In Austin, a 2018 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimated that business would actually save $4.5 million a year by reducing workplace sickness and turnover with paid sick leave. 

Texas workers are not alone in facing state-led pushback for local protections they’ve won. At least 22 states since 2004 have banned local governments from passing paid sick leave laws, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Photo: Workers Defense Action Fund/Workers Defense Project

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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