Breaking New Ground for Paid Leave in the South

On October 1, the city of Austin, Texas will become one of only a handful of cities in the U.S. that require a basic benefit to workers that many other countries already grant on a national level—paid sick leave.

Mark Dixon / Creative Commons

With a 9-2 vote on Feb. 16, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance requiring that all workers in the city—whether they are full-time, part-time or temporary—be granted one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Businesses with 15 or fewer employees will be required to offer up to 48 hours (six eight-hour workdays) of paid leave, while all other private businesses will have to offer up to 64.

While plenty of cities along the coasts and even a few in the midwest have passed paid sick leave laws—including San Francisco, Seattle, St. Paul and Jersey City—Austin is the first city in the south to do so. Under the rather absurd guise of maintaining legal consistency across the state, many states in the south have even imposed bans on local governments passing paid leave legislation.

The policy nonetheless garnered a lot of support in Austin: On the day of the council’s vote, over 200 people showed up to testify, and when the ordinance finally passed, much of the audience broke out into a roaring applause. Former state Sen. Wendy Davis praised the city for “leading the way… on what good governance looks like.”

The passage also earned praise from a variety of citywide and national organizations. “Today we celebrate another victory in the fight to ensure all Americans can earn paid sick days, so people don’t have to choose between following doctor’s orders and putting food on the table,” Ellen Bravo and Wendy Chun-Hoon, the co-directors of Family Values @ Work, said in a statement. “While opponents spread misinformation, our champions in Austin responded with the truth, and the truth won.”

Paid sick leave overwhelmingly benefits women, who remain the primary caregivers in families. Nearly 40 percent of mothers said they were responsible for staying home from work to care for sick children—a stark contrast to the three percent of fathers who said they were responsible. Moreover, women also make up about 66 percent of unpaid caregivers helping aging parents and other elderly people; paid leave enables them to make and take time to provide this much-needed care for their families without losing out on their also much-needed pay.

“For me, so much of this is about widening inequality and our fight against it,” Austin Council Member Greg Casar, who strongly supported the paid sick leave ordinance, told The Statesman. Casar also drew attention to the impact the ordinance will have on the Latinx community in Austin, which makes up over 35 percent of the city’s population. According to a 2014 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Latinx workers have the lowest rates of access to paid sick leave. Just 46 percent of these workers are offered paid sick leave, while over 60 percent of white, black and Asian workers are each offered the benefit. “This policy,” Casar added, “will change the majority of Latino working families’ lives.”

The vote in Austin came just a few short weeks after the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which granted unpaid leave to many workers in the U.S. To mark the occasion and to spark change on the national level, the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPFW) launched a digital campaign using the hashtag #PaidLeaveMeans and video testimonies to demonstrate how the policy deeply affects the lives of women and men.

In one testimony, a woman named Julia shared that paid leave not only allows her to care for herself and not worry about her career, but it also allows her to “be a good daughter” and to care for her mother when needed. “Paid leave for me,” she declared, “means dignity.”

Maura Turcotte is an editorial intern at Ms.

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