City councils in San Antonio, Dallas and Austin have all passed different versions of paid sick time ordinances. But in San Antonio and Austin, those policies are tied up in court, and Dallas could face an injunction before the city starts enforcing its ordinance in April. With cases of the highly contagious coronavirus on the rise, many advocates say those policies are more critical now than ever before.
State Senator Royce West represents Dallas. He is in a runoff with MJ Hegar for the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn.
"Look at how rapidly it's spreading,” he said. “Never before in my life have we ever seen a situation where we are having a pandemic, where countries are closing down institutions.”
He said the lack of paid sick time in Texas will exacerbate the economic impact of the spreading virus on families.
"What I will say is without the ability to have paid sick time, you're going to have a lot of people without the necessary resources in order to pay their rent, to take care of childcare, to take care of issues concerning health care — so a whole host of issues,” he said. “We need to make certain that there is a safety net."
More than 4 million Texan workers don’t have access to paid sick time, according to a 2017 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“I think (paid sick leave) would certainly make a difference in terms of ensuring that — number one — employees who need to take time off because family members are ill don't force themselves into work, thereby potentially exposing other people to illness,” San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “That would be a huge benefit in a situation like this, which is why you're seeing an overwhelming bipartisan course for paid sick leave.”
Many small businesses say mandatory paid sick time would cause economic harm. Annie Spilman is the Texas state director and lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business.
"Businesses in general are not in favor of any sort of government mandate, but specifically one that mandates their benefits packages," she said.
According to a research survey by the non-partisan group Trust for America’s Health, about 68% of Texan workers have paid time off. But the other 32% are among the most vulnerable to the economic impacts of illness. Many work in the service industry and live paycheck to paycheck.
According to Spilman, many service industry businesses allow workers to swap shifts.
"99.9% of the time, if they have to miss a shift because they're sick, that employer will let them make up another shift at another time, and they'll be able to make up that money,” she said.
But at businesses that don’t offer paid sick leave, employees who can’t find someone to pick up their shift are often expected to work — even when they’re sick.
Emily Burns said she was fired after she didn’t show up for work at a San Antonio restaurant. She did not disclose which restaurant out of fear it would hurt her chances of finding employment in the future.
“I definitely was not even able to stand up,” she said. “I could barely move. I was literally just crying in pain. And obviously, if I tried to work — if I tried to be there at the restaurant — I would just be hunched over on the floor in front of all the customers.”
She was hospitalized for a medical condition that can cause menstruation to be intolerably painful. At the time, she was diagnosed with severe dysmenorrhea and chronic ovarian cysts, but her doctor now thinks she has endometriosis.
"I was not sick with something that was contagious, but even if I was, (my manager) still would have expected me to be there," she said.
She said paid sick time is essential.
"I don't see how business owners and places can just expect you to just not put food on the table for yourself because you aren't feeling well,” she said. “It's kind of like being punished for being sick. 'You're sick, okay? You don't get paid. Now we're gonna make it even harder for you.' You can't provide for your family. You can't provide for yourself."
Some small businesses in the service industry do already offer paid sick time, like TableTopGenerals — a gaming tavern in San Antonio owned by William Gaskins. As they work, his employees gradually accrue paid sick leave.
Gaskins was a proponent of San Antonio’s earned sick time ordinance, which is similar to his own policy.
"I'm a very small business. A big complaint from these large companies was ‘We can't afford to offer paid time off,’” he said. “If I can, with my minimal profits and my daily small business struggles — and I somehow managed to do it — I'm sure that your huge multimillion or billion dollar company can also do it."
About a dozen teenagers hung out in two gaming rooms at TableTopGenerals on Wednesday night.
Jay Woolfork said the bar’s paid sick leave policy makes them more comfortable.
“Because this illness is really big, and it's important to look out and make sure that you're keeping yourself safe, and you have to look out for other people around you, as well,” Woolfork said. “The fact that they do get paid sick days off so they don't have to come into work does put me more at ease during this time.”
Woolfork has been going out to eat less because of the spreading virus, but said that would be different if the city’s mandated paid sick time ordinance wasn’t held up in court.
“Yeah, totally,” Woolfork said. “I'd probably feel more safe eating and spending time in restaurants.”
Before starting TableTopGenerals, Gaskins worked as a server on the San Antonio River Walk — a hub of international tourism.
“During a night shift — a busy one — I would interact with 400 people easily from all over the world sometimes,” he said. “And if I was sick, that's 400 potential transmissions."
President Donald Trump addressed the nation on Wednesday after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. He told people to stay home if they feel unwell, and hinted at some type of compensation for those who miss work. He said he will take unprecedented emergency action to provide “financial relief.” But details remain sparse.
“This will be targeted for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus,” he said.
Congressional Democrats’ efforts to mandate paid sick time are currently blocked by Senate Republicans.
President Trump promised that insurance copayments for coronavirus tests would be waived, but the insurance industry quickly said only testing copayments will be waved.
And questions remain for uninsured people, who usually have to cover medical costs on their own.
“And so the only way for them to actually pay their fees for going to the doctor is to actually go to work,” said Drew Galloway, the executive director of MOVE Texas, which advocated for San Antonio’s paid sick time ordinance.
More than 5 million Texans are uninsured.