City leaders say paid sick leave is public health matter; businesses fear financial pains

Mayor Adler and members of the Austin City Council support making paid sick leave mandatory for Austin businesses. (Photo: CBS Austin)

Advocates for a mandatory paid sick leave policy in Austin rallied alongside Mayor Steve Adler and other council members at city hall Tuesday.

A coalition of groups in the city, Work Strong Austin, said a policy requiring all businesses to allow employees to accrue paid time off, would benefit Austin.

The group estimates more than 30 percent of workers in the city do not have paid sick days.

With viruses like the flu spreading rapidly, Austin City Council members Greg Casar, Kathie Tovo, Sabino Renteria, and Ann Kitchen say the paid sick leave matter is a public health and safety issue. They argue workers without paid sick leave are often forced to work -- spreading the illness further.

"The real costs are being shouldered right now by Austin workers who are having to choose between their health and the health of their families, and their job," said Ann Beeson, Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy and Priorities.

Beeson pointed to studies like one from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that shows a city like Austin could provide $8 million in annual net savings to the community and businesses. They point to reduced health care expenses and more productivity.

The study looked at 40 cities, counties and states around the county that have passed similar laws.

Advocates say other national studies show a zero to three percent increase in costs for businesses.

"What we find is that the actual financial impact is not as great as some anticipate," said Adler, referring to the research.

However, many small businesses don’t buy it.

Leslie Dittfurth, owner of Lillian Mae Bridal, is concerned that if she is forced to pay employees for paid time off, she couldn’t keep the lights on.

"I work 80 hours a week and make less than minimum wage," said Dittfurth. "People think because I own a business, I must be rich. I barely make enough to pay payroll sometimes "

Dittfurth only employees three people, but she is growing quickly thanks to good reviews and customer referrals. She hopes to provide paid sick leave to her dedicated employees someday, but can’t afford to do it now.

"I don’t like being forced into it when I just don’t have the money to spare. I would go under," said Dittfurth.

When employees are sick, Dittfurth said she works with her employees to get their hours and take care of their families and their health, without taking a hit financially. She hopes council members can put themselves in her shoes.

"If they could live with my paycheck for just one week and see where my expenses are going, they would understand," said Dittfurth.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce has called for a study, using real local data, to be done before city council takes a vote.

There are also state legislators against the policy who promise to file legislation that would pre-empt any sick leave mandate Austin may pass.

Council will take up the paid sick leave issue on Thursday.

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