News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Texas News
KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

In Texas, Battles Over Paid Sick Leave Linger As Coronavirus Spreads

ticket taker at Dallas zoo
LM Otero
Associated Press
In this March 6 photo, hand sanitizer sits next to ticket taker Mariah Bernal who works at the Dallas Zoo. Two in five Texas workers don't get paid if they don't work because they or their child is ill according to a 2017 study.

Of the 193 countries that in the world, 179 offer some form of paid sick leave so workers can stay home when they’re unwell. The U.S. is not one of those countries. 

With the coronavirus pandemic deepening, the debate about paid sick leave is growing sharper, and years-long fights in Texas are getting renewed attention.

Two in five Texas workers don’t get paid if they stay home from work because they’re sick or they have a sick child, according to a 2017 study. That’s lower than the national average. Dallas remains the only city in Texas that requires paid sick leave for all workers. Exactly what effect that has on the spread of coronavirus won’t be known for a long time, but public health officials say it makes disease containment more difficult.

After the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, researchers concluded that U.S. workforce policies, including a lack of access to paid sick leave, contributed an additional 5 million flu cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60.8 million people contracted H1N1 influenza.

Whether or not a worker has paid sick leave varies widely based on income level and industry. Fewer than a third of workers who make less than $10.80 per hour have paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Service industry jobs like food service and childcare workers have even lower rates.

Erin Carlson heads UT-Arlington’s graduate public health program.

“If somebody has to go to work because they cannot afford to stay home if they feel ill, now that person’s in the workplace,” Carlson said. “If they’re in a service industry job, that means a person who is infected is now touching a hotel room, preparing the food, caring for sick children, caring for the elderly.”

Twelve states and Washington, D.C. require paid sick leave, and many more cities do. In 2018, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio joined that club when all three cities passed ordinances requiring employers to provide up to eight days of paid sick leave, based on how many hours an employee worked and the size of the business.

That triggered an immediate backlash from conservatives. Republicans in the legislature tried and failed to ban cities from requiring paid sick leave, but lawsuits backed by conservative and business groups have been more successful.

Today, only Dallas’ mandate survives, after state courts knocked down the Austin and San Antonio laws. Austin is asking the Texas Supreme Court to take up the case.

The lawsuits raise a number of legal and constitutional questions about the paid leave mandates, said Robert Henneke from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, and argue that only the state has the right to require sick leave. Henneke’s unconvinced by the public health arguments, and said forcing businesses to pay for employees will lead to cut hours and layoffs. Fundamentally, conservatives say sick leave mandates puts the government between workers and their bosses.

“They interfere with the freedom of the employer and the employee to work out their own terms of employment, and that takes away the power from workers to negotiate the terms and conditions of their job,” Henneke said.

Sean Goldhammer from the progressive Workers Defense Project said the reality is that a lot of workers fundamentally lack the power to negotiate sick leave and other benefits with their bosses, which is why it is lower-wage workers and workers of color who disproportionately lack access to paid sick leave. He said the conservative lawsuits are an attempt by “corporate interests” to undermine workers’ power and undo democratically won victories at the local and state levels.

“A worker should never have to balance their health, or the health of their community or family, with taking a pay cut or losing a job.” Goldhammer said. “That’s an impossible choice to make.”

Because of the Dallas mandate, more than 300,000 Dallas workers should have begun accruing paid sick leave on August 1, Goldhammer said making them more able to comply with guidance from public health officials to stay home when they are ill. The city is scheduled to begin fully enforcing the mandate next month.

The Dallas sick leave ordinance is not in the clear yet. A federal court judge overseeing the case against the City of Dallas has not yet ruled on a motion to put the sick leave requirement on hold while the case proceeds. The case was filed on behalf of two Collin County-based companies with workers in Dallas, staffing firm Employee Solutions and the Hagan Law Firm. Meanwhile, the City of Austin is waiting to hear if the Texas Supreme Court will hear its case.

Yet even as questions remain about the future of paid sick leave in Texas, both Congress and the president are talking about temporarily funding some paid sick leave as part of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This story is part of the KERA One Crisis Away series, Coronavirus And Life On The Financial Edge.