Houston Chronicle

In this trying time, Houstonian­s need paid sick leave

- By Hany Khalil Khalil is executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. Rick Levy is president of the Texas AFL-CIO.

As local, state and federal authoritie­s take belated action to slow the spread of COVID-19, the city of Houston must use its authority to enact a paid sick leave ordinance immediatel­y.

Paid sick leave is a vital tool to slow the spread of COVID-19. Workers who feel sick should not have to choose between protecting their families, their co-workers, and the public and putting food on the table. Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 1 in 4 American workers does not have access to paid sick days. In Texas, that number is likely closer to 1 in 3. The absence of paid sick leave for too many working families will accelerate the spread of the coronaviru­s.

Clare McCullough, a 23-yearold social worker in a Harris County school district, told us, “I face an impossible dilemma. Currently I want the choice to stay home with a fever. But I live paycheck to paycheck. If I don’t work, I won’t make rent. Jobs with no paid sick leave force people like me to choose between our livelihood­s and careers and the lives of others. It’s wrong.”

Food service and other airport workers are among those at high risk of getting infected as travelers from all over the world enter their workplaces. As Yvette Leija of UNITE HERE Local 23 said, “Our union has negotiated paid sick time, but too many Texans without a union cannot afford to take time off. That is why unions are advocating for all Texans to get paid sick leave.”

Three other large Texas cities — Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — have already adopted paid sick leave ordinances. The Austin and San Antonio ordinances are currently on hold pending dangerous legal challenges by Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the National Federation of Independen­t Business. But Dallas’ ordinance went into effect on Aug. 1, 2019, for employers with six or more employees; enforcemen­t begins April 1.

Here’s how these local policies work: employers in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio are required to give their employees the right to earn paid sick time. For every 30 hours workers put in on the job, they earn an hour of paid time off to visit the doctor, care for a sick loved one, or even access services for victims of domestic violence.

Public opinion in the three cities where the ordinances passed is solidly behind paid sick leave. Community organizati­ons joined with labor unions in a coalition called Working Texans for Paid Sick Time to advance the workplace benefit, and hundreds of thousands of Texans signed petitions in support of local paid sick days policies. When some in the Legislatur­e tried to preempt the local policies last year, workers, public health experts, and supportive small businesses stopped the bills.

On Saturday the U.S. House passed a bill that addresses many challenges working families will have due to the virus. Unfortunat­ely, Trump and the GOP extracted major concession­s as the price of their support: Companies with 500 or more workers like Amazon are not required to provide the benefit, and firms with fewer than 50 employees can seek hardship exemptions. The final version of the bill guarantees paid sick leave to only about 20 percent of American workers. The final version of the relief bill is still evolving as the Senate makes further changes.

And we hear nothing but crickets from Gov. Greg Abbott on a statewide paid sick leave bill.

The city of Houston has a responsibi­lity to take action to protect our neighbors today.

Local action can also help to break the gridlock in Washington and Austin: The more cities that adopt local sick leave ordinances, the more pressure there will be for state and federal leaders to take action.

In the face of this pandemic the already flimsy arguments by some employers against the common-sense policy of paid sick leave are crumbling. Others are stepping up to the plate. After a Walmart employee tested positive for coronaviru­s in Kentucky three days ago, Walmart announced an “emergency employee leave program” that waives the company’s broken attendance policy through the end of April. Under this plan employees won’t be penalized for staying home, and employees who are diagnosed with coronaviru­s will receive paid sick time. And Darden, Olive Garden’s parent company, has begun offering paid sick leave to all employees.

These are positive steps forward. But we can’t wait for employers used to the status quo to do the right thing. Cities need to set requiremen­ts now to make sure they do.

As McCullough told us, “Paid sick leave is the best vaccinatio­n that we have in these early stages of the pandemic.” Houston, let’s save lives by adopting our own paid sick leave ordinance now.

 ?? Jason Fochtman / Staff photograph­er ?? Joe Haliti, owner of Joe’s Italian Restaurant in Conroe, sanitizes menus after Montgomery County issued rules for restaurant­s.
Jason Fochtman / Staff photograph­er Joe Haliti, owner of Joe’s Italian Restaurant in Conroe, sanitizes menus after Montgomery County issued rules for restaurant­s.

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