87th LegislatureState HouseLegislature Takes Aim at Costly City Employment Regulations, Approves Bill to Prohibit Them

In recent years, large cities have adopted strict and costly ordinances regulating contractual terms between businesses and employees.
May 25, 2021
The latest chapter of a session in which the City of Austin has borne the brunt of the legislature’s ire centers on city-ordained employment regulations. Legislation given preliminary approval in the Texas House today would prohibit cities from inserting themselves into contract negotiations between private employers and contract employees.

After a series of long delays by motions of postponement and points of order, the legislation passed on initial consideration 30 minutes before the midnight deadline.

Under Senate Bill (SB) 14, cities and counties would be prohibited from passing any ordinance that “exceed[s] or conflict with federal or state law relating to any form of employment leave, hiring practices, employment benefits, scheduling practices, or other terms of employment.”

The bill states it neither affects the state’s minimum wage law nor the ability for a political subdivision to negotiate contracts with its own employees and with entities working explicitly with the political subdivision.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) accepted a couple of amendments, one of which allows localities to pass ordinances prohibiting a criminal history question on the initial job application, but explicitly allows employers to inquire and take it into account further on in the hiring process.

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Another made more plain that localities can dictate the employment contracts for their own employees without running afoul of this bill.

On the back end of delays, Democrats secured the adoption of one amendment by Rep. Rhetta Bowers (D-Dallas) that allows localities to adopt ordinances prohibiting hiring descrimination on the basis of “hair style, hair texture, or hair type.”

A handful of years ago, the City of Austin adopted something called the “Better Builder Program” (BBP) —  a set of stipulations construction companies must meet in order to have their permit requests approved by city brass.

Those benchmarks include a $13.50 minimum wage, workers’ compensation insurance, health benefits and paid time off, and whichever is reached first between a compliance fee of $1.25 per square foot of the project size or $5,000 per month.

The chief driver of that policy’s adoption was the Workers Defense Project (WDP), known as a “workers center” that operates like a labor union but doesn’t file as one with the Internal Revenue Service.

WDP was slapped with an official Department of Labor complaint in 2019 due to that discrepancy that has yet to be resolved.

Piloting the WDP during the initial push for the BBP was then-executive director, and now-Austin city councilman, Greg Casar.

“This bill will undo lifesaving worker safety protections like guaranteed water breaks,” Casar tweeted.

That concern by Casar was assuaged by an amendment from Rep. Eddie Lucio, III (D-Brownsville) that exempted from the prohibition ordinances requiring water and restroom breaks.

WDP activists flowed into the capitol to press lawmakers on the bill, hoping it fails to pass before the midnight deadline.

While Austin is a focal point, it is not the only Texas city in which WDP has pushed to adopt similar ordinances. Houston adopted similar BBP language in 2019. And a number of cities — such as Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio — have adopted paid time off ordinances, all of which are being challenged in court. Dallas’, specifically, was overruled by a court in March of last year.

“We have already experienced the harms of this type of preemption here in Dallas,” Dallas City Council Member Omar Narvaez said of SB 14. “We passed our earned paid sick leave protections nearly two years ago and actually had the law on the books for a few months, only to see our local control undermined.”

The debate between state and local control is a consistent theme underpinning Texas politics and intensifies every time the legislature convenes. SB 14 was just the latest episode — and one from which the state emerged momentarily victorious.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.