In the context of this year’s unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, access to paid sick leave has never been more important. This is especially true for people working in essential businesses, like restaurants and grocery stores, where workers are less likely to be provided paid sick leave. That’s why, even after a paid sick leave law is passed, A Better Balance works with cities and advocates to successfully implement and defend those laws against legal challenges.
The last few weeks have brought mixed news about court challenges to paid sick leave laws in Minnesota and Texas. To start with the good news: the Supreme Court of Minnesota handed down a decision on June 10, 2020 upholding Minneapolis’s paid sick leave ordinance, which was first enacted in 2017. The Court first held that the ordinance did not conflict with state law and affirmed the ability of localities in Minnesota to pass paid sick time laws. The court also held that the ordinance properly applies to employers located outside of Minneapolis if their employees do at least 80 hours of work per year within the city. Opponents of the law had argued that the city could only require paid sick time for employers physically based in the city, which would have vastly diminished the law’s coverage and undermined the public health benefits of the paid sick days law. We helped to draft the local paid sick time laws in Minnesota, worked with partners on their passage, and submitted amicus briefs in the Minneapolis litigation. As a result of this decision, not only will Minneapolis employees continue to earn paid sick leave, but existing paid sick leave ordinances in St. Paul and Duluth (and any future local paid sick time laws in the state) are safe from the threat of litigation.
In somewhat more disheartening news, on June 5, 2020, the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Austin about their similar paid sick leave ordinance, which, when passed over two years ago in February 2018, was the first paid sick leave ordinance to be enacted in the South. Although the Austin trial court upheld the law against a challenge by a variety of business associations, in November 2018, a Texas intermediate appeals court ruled that Austin’s ordinance was preempted by the state’s minimum wage law, which provides that localities cannot pass their own laws setting a minimum wage. This is an argument that has never succeeded anywhere in the country before this decision, although other lawsuits have raised it. A Better Balance strongly disputes the notion that minimum wage and paid sick time requirements are the same. Notably, the appeals court decision was decided days after two of the three judges were voted out of office and was among their last decisions before leaving the bench. Since the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the appellate court’s decision striking down the ordinance will stand. The decision is certainly an unfortunate one that makes Texas the only state to have determined that a law prohibiting localities from enacting local minimum wage laws also prohibits them from regulating employee benefits like paid sick leave.
We hope that other courts in Texas will cast aside the extremely flawed reasoning used in the Austin decision and uphold local paid sick leave laws in San Antonio and Dallas—also being challenged on the same grounds—as the valid public health measures that they are. We helped to draft the Austin ordinance, provided technical support to our Texas partners, and submitted amicus briefs in the court case, and we will continue to support our partners in San Antonio and Dallas as those cases move forward. The rapid growth of COVID-19 cases in Texas underscores the incredible need for paid sick time in the state and the damaging consequences of the Texas Supreme Court’s decision not to rule on the Austin ordinance. However, we’re not giving up and will continue to fight back against this flawed reasoning.
As COVID-19 continues to spread around the country, ABB will continue to do everything possible to ensure workers aren’t forced to go to work sick or choose between their jobs and their family well-being. Fortunately, workers in Minneapolis, Duluth, and St. Paul will continue to have a baseline of paid sick time, but we will continue our work until all workers in the United States have the same right.