Some Restaurant Owners Wary, Others Welcome Dallas’ Paid Sick Leave Ordinance

If you're a waiter and look like this, please stay home, sick leave ordinance or not.EXPAND
If you're a waiter and look like this, please stay home, sick leave ordinance or not.
Jelena Danilovic/iStock
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Some Dallas business owners are confused and upset over the city's shaky preparation for enacting its new paid sick leave ordinance. The Democratic Socialists of America are happy with the law, set to take effect Aug. 1, and even helping get the word out on how it works.

Among restaurant owners, opinions about the coming law are mixed, with even those who support it in principle expressing doubts about whether the law will have any real effect, other than add more red tape for honest business owners while leaving workers at less scrupulous places untouched. The city approved its ordinance in April, requiring employers to provide earned paid sick time to their employees.

About 75 people filed into an auditorium in the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library last week to seek guidance from city officials and answers to questions.

“The first thing that comes out of my mouth is, how can anyone be against creating a fair and equitable environment for workers?” says Brian Luscher, owner and operator of the Grape, who wasn’t at the meeting but spoke by phone. “That being said, I think the notion of this being passed is quite noble; however, I don’t think it’s fully vetted, from both the employer and the employee’s perspectives.”

Luscher points to the fact that employers cannot verify if someone is absent for an actual sickness.

“People who need to get help need to get help, people who need time need to have time … I get that, and if someone is trying as hard as they can, we’re going to work, but now there’s this weird, hollow policy to help people like that, but they can completely be taken advantage of,” he says.

His own policy has been that people can move a shift for sickness as long as they come with a doctor’s note. Now he has to wait awhile for that. The ordinance says an employer can verify the reason for absence on the fourth consecutive day of being out.

“I can’t say anything, I can’t ask; I guess I’m hostage now,” he says.

Last week's meeting was to answer questions from the public — the loudest of whom seem to be business owners. Hannah Alexander, partnership liaison in Dallas’ Fair Housing and Human Rights Office, gave a fairly quick overview of the ordinance and allowed much of the time for people to ask questions.

The ordinance takes effect in August for businesses with more than five employees; for employers with five or fewer employees, it will go into effect Aug. 1, 2021. Under the ordinance, an employee (someone who works 80 hours within a year’s time at a business) will accrue at least one hour of sick time for every 30 hours they work. Caps for those hours depend on the size of the business.

Businesses found in violation of the policy could be hit with a $500 fine.

Erin Jett of Humble: Simply Good Pies in East Dallas attended because she was seeking clarity.

“The policy is very vague, and there are a lot of questions,” she said. “We want to be in compliance, we don’t want to screw this up … It was really pushed through and is really vague; that’s why we’re here.”

She and husband Sean are particularly worried about the paperwork involved.

“We’re under an obligation to do a whole lot of paperwork, when we really just want to make pie,” she said at the meeting.

She’s one of many small business owners who are concerned about red tape, according to Jerry Walker, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association.

“They do payroll themselves. They’re the ones that are concerned (with) the amount of paperwork, the expense, making a mistake they didn’t intend to make,” Walker says.

The GDRA sent an email to its members recently examining the ordinance, which it hasn’t previously supported.

“We’re not opposed to this paid sick leave,” he says. “What we were truly opposed to as an industry, what we’re starting to see more and more (of, are) cities in Texas that negatively impact especially small businesses, that impact their ability to remain profitable.”

Walker also points to the fact that the city approved the ordinance weeks before an election, and he believes the process has been rushed.

“The city of Dallas is not ready to do this,” he says. “There are no guidelines whatsoever.”

That’s part of the reason the city is hosting public meetings about the ordinance: to go over the guidelines that are in the ordinance and discover what more details are needed for business owners and employees.

Alexander took question after question last Tuesday. While she addressed most with a thorough answer, she answered a number of them with a response along the lines of, “That’s something we’re still flushing out.”

While the ordinance goes into effect Aug. 1, citations for violations will not occur until April 1.

John Tesar of Knife says there needs to be “breathing room” for employees.

“In the restaurant industry, people go out a lot, they drink, sometimes they don’t come in the next day. As an employer, you (overlook) it sometimes, I understand that. They’re more valuable than the negligence that they’re laying (on) the business at the moment; you kind of tolerate it,” he says. “If you want to keep valuable people these days, you have to share. … To give someone paid sick leave so they’re not sick at work, that’s an obligation to an employer.

“Why wouldn’t you want to get a dishwasher paid because he’s sick or overworked and tired? Otherwise you’re a prick,” he says. “Small business is difficult, but at the same time, maybe we have too many businesses. Maybe it’s better to have not as many businesses and have better quality for employees.”

Jon Alexis of Malibu Poke and TJ’s Seafood and Market doesn’t doubt there are decent motives, but he lacks faith that this ordinance will be all that helpful.

“My prediction: Despite admirable intentions, this ordinance will have little impact other than red tape for the good operators who treat their staff right,” he says. “Unfortunately, it will be a significant challenge to use it against bad operators for whom the ordinance is directed in the first place.”

Peja Krstic of Mot Hai Ba in East Dallas is mostly in favor of the ordinance.

“I see a lot of things might go out of my pocket,” he says. “However, I know that if I have an employee dedicated to my place, then it’s all worth it.”

Reyna Duong, owner of Sandwich Hag in The Cedars, went to Tuesday’s meeting because she wanted to learn more about the ordinance. Afterward, she had some questions answered and knew where to look when more arise.

“Do I still have questions to make sure we don’t do anything that’s noncompliant? Yeah, I do, but that’s when I will wait for the Q&A and the website to update,” she says. “I think anytime you’re trying to figure out how to best move forward to take better care of your team is always a good thing, and I think for anyone that could be skeptical, they should attend one of the meetings.”

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