There has been much banter on social media—and in the news media in general—about teachers and other public school district staff engaging in a strike due to safety concerns about working in person during the 2020-21 school year.
Much of the talk has originated outside of Texas. Texas teachers and other staff need to be aware of the law in Texas that prohibits strikes or any type of “organized work stoppage,” such as a “sick-out.”
Texas Government Code §617.003 states:
Public employees may not strike or engage in an organized work stoppage against the state or a political subdivision of the state.
A public employee who violates Subsection (a) forfeits all civil service rights, reemployment rights, and any other rights, benefits, and privileges the employee enjoys as a result of public employment or former public employment.
The right of an individual to cease work may not be abridged if the individual is not acting in concert with others in an organized work stoppage.
Two phrases used in this statute are unfamiliar and therefore deserve definition or explanation:
Political subdivision of the state: A public school district is defined in Local Government Code §172.003(3) as a political subdivision of the state. Hence, this law applies to any employee of a public school district.
Organized work stoppage: The law goes beyond the traditional “strike” to prohibit an “organized work stoppage,” which is any situation where individuals collectively choose not to work. This would cover a “sick-out” or a “sit-in” that interferes with work. Subsection (c) does make it clear that a public employee who individually does not work for some reason is not engaging in a prohibited work stoppage prohibited by this statute.
Penalties for engaging in a strike or work stoppage: Because engaging in a strike or work stoppage is illegal, it could be the basis for both termination of employment and certification sanctions for certified educators as engaging in illegal activity can be considered good cause for either action. In addition, the law states an employee “forfeits … other rights, benefits, and privileges the employee enjoys as a result of public employment or former public employment.” This is an extremely broad category. Although the law does not explicitly say so, ATPE has always been concerned the law could be interpreted to mean a public school employee could lose their retirement benefits for engaging in a strike because retirement benefits are earned through public employment. Any Texas school district employee contemplating engaging in a strike or work stoppage should be aware they are risking more than their job and career.
Finally, because strikes are illegal in Texas, school staff should be cautious about publicly advocating for them as this does amount to advocating for an illegal activity. This itself could lead to negative job repercussions.
If you have questions or concerns about how your district is handling the reopening of your school, please visit ATPE’s frequently updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page. Eligible ATPE members may also contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department.
The legal information provided here is accurate as of the date of publication. It is provided for general purposes only. Individual legal situations vary greatly, and readers needing individual legal advice should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department. August 2020.