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Why Austin's Paid Sick Leave Ordinance Is a Victory for Reproductive Rights

The legislation stands to benefit Texan women who have to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops to obtain abortions.
Austin City Hall.

Austin City Hall.

Last month, the Austin City Council passed a paid sick leave policy mandating that all private-sector employees must receive one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked (with a cap of six to eight days). Austin's policy, which is the first of its kind in the South, will benefit at least 87,000 workers, according to the Texas Observer.

Paid sick leave is, at its core, a public-health issue. Allowing workers—particularly hourly earners—to take time off when they themselves are sick or need to care for someone else helps them maintain employment while keeping the workforce a bit healthier. But in Austin, the passage of paid sick days is also a major victory for reproductive rights.

It is incredibly difficult to get an abortion in Texas. Women must go through mandated counseling that discourages abortion and then wait 24 hours before the procedure. Private insurance only covers abortion if it's a life-threatening procedure or if a woman has purchased additional coverage. That means women already have the chips stacked against them before they can consider taking time off of work for the procedure itself.

For Lilith Fund, an abortion fund serving the lower half of Texas, supporting the sick leave ordinance was a natural extension of its Repro Power Texas project, which brings together advocacy organizations and abortion funds to try to change local policy around reproductive access. "Paid sick days have been a part of our vision for the changes we can make on local levels for a while," says Lilith Fund executive director Amanda Williams. "It's really about having the power and resources you need to make healthy decisions on your own terms. It's about our bodies our lives our families and our communities."

Councilman Greg Casar, who introduced the ordinance, believes paid sick leave would help equalize Austin. "Not only did we pass the first paid sick leave policy in a Southern city, not only did we pass the first paid sick leave policy in the state of Texas, but it is also one of the most progressive of the 40 or so paid sick leave policies that exist across the country," he told the Nation.

While the issue does on one hand have to do with a more general sense of equality, it's also about leveling the playing field for women, especially those who work for hourly wages. As Lilith Fund board member Rosann Mariappurram said in a statement, "Guaranteed paid sick days for Austin workers are a simple way to help make safe abortion more accessible for our callers."

As the paid sick leave movement began gaining steam in Austin, the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter threw its support to the motion, knocking on more than 5,000 doors in the months before the council meeting. For DSA, the issue of paid sick leave dovetailed nicely with its own long-running "Medicare for All" campaign (which advocates for a single-payer health-care system); any one victory in health-care reform, the thinking went, would only help its own reform initiatives. Change begets change, in other words, and, when it comes to reproductive rights in the South, an intersectional advocacy approach can really go a long way to shaking things up.