You’ve got to say this for the Austin City Council—it’s persistent. In the face of a skyrocketing murder rate, an affordability crisis crippling its service economy, and a public transportation boondoggle, the council is persistent in protecting its citizens from things like the potential harm of hair discrimination.
In June, the council passed the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” or CROWN Act. Now, it’s not entirely clear what “hair discrimination” is, but if it’s a problem, it’s likely already prohibited by federal and state anti-discrimination laws. It is simply not the city’s place to make these types of workplace rules for local businesses. If individuals or classes of individuals need additional protection from discrimination, it is a statewide or federal issue to be determined by the legislative branch of the state or federal government, not local authorities.
And a city that can’t take care of its own business shouldn’t be telling private firms how to run theirs—especially in tough economic times like these.
The city has been here before on workplace issues—passing unconstitutional local ordinances that overstep its bounds and attempt to dictate to business owners how they should run their shops. That’s why Texas lawmakers must act to prohibit the adoption of these local ordinances and streamline statewide employment regulations to allow job creators to spend less time fighting through a web of red tape and focus more time investing in their employees, their businesses, and their communities.
Cities aren’t powerless in Texas. They have well-defined roles in passing local ordinances—as long as they aren’t in conflict with state law.
The city of Austin has tended to ignore that part. Take its mandatory paid sick leave ordinance, which it adopted in February 2018. The ordinance was clearly against state law, since it mandates benefits above the state’s minimum wage. The ordinance gave the city subpoena powers to force businesses to produce documents, and allowed city officials to assign civil and criminal penalties to businesses not in compliance.
The ordinance was challenged by a coalition of businesses and business associations represented by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. And we won; the courts found that “the Ordinance violates the Texas Constitution’s mandate that no city ordinance ‘shall contain any provision inconsistent with the … general laws enacted by the Legislature of this State.”
Other examples of local overreach include nondiscrimination laws (see above), and workplace safety ordinances. For example, the city of Austin adopted an ordinance specifying the length and frequency of rest breaks at certain construction sites. While the safety of employees is certainly important, federal law already provides lengthy and specific workplace safety standards through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). And just like state laws, federal laws supersede local ordinances.
In the current business environment, flexibility has been key for business survival. Government intervention in employment practices, benefits, and workplace conditions, even if well-intentioned, does not accommodate needed flexibility and will frustrate necessary adjustments. This is true of governments at all levels, but even more so at local levels due to the sheer number of jurisdictions with varying requirements.
In the last legislative session, the Texas Senate passed a bill that would have prevented local governments from micromanaging Texas businesses. But it failed in the House. When the Legislature convenes again in January 2023, it should prohibit and statutorily preempt these local ordinances, and reassert its constitutional role of supremacy over local governments.