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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Pittsburgh City Council Introduces Paid Sick Days Bill

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

“This is Pittsburgh. We want French fries on our sandwiches, not (the flu),” Councilman Corey O’Connor told a group of supporters shortly before introducing legislation that would mandate paid sick days for all workers in the city.

The Paid Sick Days Act would require employers with 15 or more employees to offer up to 72 hours of paid sick time, while employers with fewer than 15 employees would be required to offer up to 40 hours of sick time. Employees would accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, and would be able to use the sick time to care for themselves or family members.

Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh UNITED, said it’s a public health issue.

“The last we want is people who are caring for others, who are preparing food for others to be sharing the sickness that they have because they’re forced to go to work, because they can’t afford to take days off when they’re sick,” Oursler said. “That’s just a wrong public policy; it’s a wrong employee and community policy.”

According to the legislation, approximately 40 percent of private sector workers in Pittsburgh do not receive paid sick time. When looking solely at service workers, that figure jumps to 77 percent.

“That means our most vulnerable people, those working our lowest wage jobs, have to choose between getting well, getting food on the table or caring for a sick child,” said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who has signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation. “When the rubber hits the road, people have no choice but to go to work when they’re sick or send their sick child to school.”

The Office of the City Controller would be responsible for enforcing the ordinance, which provides for a fine of up to $100 for each violation. Controller Michael Lamb said it already has an enforcement role in other areas, and that adding the responsibility would come at no cost to taxpayers. He called passing the bill a “no-brainer.”

If the ordinance passes, Pittsburgh will join a growing number of cities mandating that employers offer paid sick time, including Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

President Barack Obama in January asked Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which mirrors the requirements proposed in O’Connor’s bill.

State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrell Hill) said that, in addition to pushing for action on the national level, Obama administration officials offered to support local lawmakers' efforts to enact paid sick time legislation.

“In fact, I got a call from the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs talking about what they can do to help us get it done statewide in Pennsylvania,” Frankel said.

Frankel is co-sponsor of House Bill 624, which would mandate that all Pennsylvania employers provide employees the opportunity to accrue paid sick time. That bill currently sits in the House Labor and Industry committee.

But two bills currently in the same committee would prohibit municipal governments from mandating that businesses offer sick time to employees. Senate Bill 333 passed the Senate 37-12 in April, while House Bill 176 still awaits a committee vote. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto those bills if they reach his desk.

The city’s proposed ordinance could also potentially be derailed by its own home rule charter. A 2004 ordinance mandating requirements for businesses who work on a contract basis was struck down by an Allegheny county judge as violating the charter. The state Supreme Court upheld the ruling, writing that the charter prohibits the city from determining the “duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers.”

City Councilman Corey O’Connor said he’s confident the proposed ordinance would withstand a legal challenge.

“It’s a public health issue, and that’s what we’re putting in front of everybody. We don’t want workers coming to work sick,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s the main piece of legislation that has been passed throughout this country, and that’s what we’re pushing for.”

The legislation was introduced at Tuesday morning’s City Council meeting. A post-agenda meeting with stakeholders, including local business owners, will be scheduled for the coming weeks. Mayor Bill Peduto has said he would sign the bill into law if it passes Council. As currently written, the sick time mandate would go into effect 60 days after the law is enacted.