Thursday, November 21, 2013

Houston council passes wage theft ordinance, mayor expands benefits to same-sex spouses

A busy and remarkable day yesterday in H-Town.

The city of Houston will offer health and life insurance benefits to all spouses of legally married employees, including same-sex couples, despite a voter-approved 2001 charter amendment that had banned the practice, Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday.

Parker's action relied on a legal opinion from City Attorney David Feldman that cited the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act this year, federal agencies' subsequent decisions to recognize legal same-sex marriages and other relevant case law.

"Based on the right to equal protection under the law, it is unconstitutional for the city to continue to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of our employees who are legally married," Parker said. "This change is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right, just and fair thing to do."


Texas' own Defense of Marriage Act remains in force, Feldman and Parker said, but they said actions on the federal level supersede it and that the law is unconstitutional.

Better late than never, certainly. Sometimes little things (like elections) get in the way of big things. And yes, this a BFD. So is this.

Houston City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt an ordinance aimed at deterring companies from stealing workers' wages and ensuring the city does not hire firms that do, though supporters acknowledged the measure's limited reach.

The seemingly easy vote masked months of lobbying and negotiations among Mayor Annise Parker's administration, council members, workers rights groups and business organizations. The item was pulled from last week's agenda for some final tweaks in talks with lobbyists for builders, contractors, restaurateurs, building owners and hotel operators.

In the end, all sides pronounced the passage a positive step, or at least said they could live with it.

Isn't it sweet that the wage thieves said "they could live with it"?

Laura Perez-Boston, director of the nonprofit Faith and Justice Worker Center, flooded the chamber with supporters each time the item came up, citing statistics: 100 daily wage theft complaints in the Houston area; $750 million in local wages lost annually to the practice.

"It's certainly not everything we would want, but I do think it is a substantial step in the right direction," she said. 

It's a start... just like giving spousal benefits to all married city employees.  And it's important to acknowledge our elected officials for doing the right thing.  Progress -- even when it is long overdue and a half-measure to boot -- is good.

Who knows what we might accomplish next?

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