Austin workers deserve paid sick leave

Audrey Larcher

Austin is a desirable place to work and live. By every Californian’s account, our city is a liberal oasis in a conservative desert, teeming with diversity. Developers will let you know: dining is top notch, lakes are — mostly — clean. We’ve got everything! Everything, except for appropriate low-wage labor protections.

While some Austinites earn a living in progressive work environments with understanding bosses, the majority of Austinites aren’t young professionals who write code for start ups. Currently 37 percent of our city’s workers are not guaranteed paid days off when they have to deal with sickness, mental health or other unexpected circumstances. This subsect of the working population mostly represents construction, maintenance and service employees, the people who build Austin and keep it running every day.

Our city has developed rapidly, but as big tech companies grew their profits, most workers’ wages remained static. To help bridge this income inequality, Austin must reconsider its labor laws and look for ways to tangibly improve workers’ lives. Guaranteeing sick leave is one of those ways.

Our city may tout its quirky liberal status, but we have yet to implement some of the most basic progressive legislation points. Already 30 different cities across the United States have implemented laws increasing sick leave accessibility, and the results suggest positive effects. Economies that provide sick leave experience improved health and productivity, two virtues Austin identifies with.

The industries that rely on these workers will not feel negative repercussions from sick leave legislation. In fact, they will gain from it — studies reveal that markets at-large improve with these provisions for workers, which yield greater stability and efficiency. 

So if all parties benefit from sick leave, the lack thereof isn’t a sole consequence of economics. The reason workers don’t enjoy this basic accommodation stems from cultural attitudes toward workers. Our state actively ignores workers’ conditions, as evidenced by anti-union laws and a low minimum wage. Austin can claims it is liberal, but our city has not removed itself from this line of thinking. The only pathway to progress is when those who experience these conditions firsthand stand up for themselves. 

The common narrative promotes Austin as a liberal paradise where people of all backgrounds are treated with respect. This narrative is a falsity built on the backs of low-wage workers. Many of us are happy to enjoy our city’s live music and culture without really considering what made all our fun possible. We can partake in the Women’s March and pass a few gay nightclubs on the street, but we don’t need to think about who serves drinks or picks up trash.

That thought pattern isn’t healthy, according to labor rights activist Andi Flores. “We tend to think of workers as separate and abstract people, but they’re our friends, our neighbors. They’re like everybody that you see in HEB,” said Flores, who organizes with the coalition spearheading the fight for sick leave, Work Strong Austin.

If Austin is truly as progressive as it advertises itself to be, we must recognize the people in our community who suffer due to poor labor laws. Our city needs to extend a hand to the workers who have always been here. We have to see them as humans, and enact legislation that recognizes this truth.

Larcher is a Plan II sophomore from Austin. She is a columnist.