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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.

Good For Business, Bad For Business: Pittsburghers Weigh In On Paid Sick Days Act

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council got an earful at a public hearing Thursday on paid sick days legislation. The measure was put on hold by council last week to allow for amendments and a public hearing. 

The most visible attendees were pro-sick days legislation, though several came to represent the other side.

“We strongly oppose this legislation,” said John Graf, president and CEO of the Priory Hospitality Group and a member of the Northside Northshore Chamber of Commerce, which he said represents more than 170 small businesses.

“These are the mom-and-pop places everybody likes in their neighborhood," he said. "These are the card stores, these are the small restaurants, these are the small bookstores.”

Graf was one of several speaking out against the legislation; he said it would put a strain on businesses and eventually cause them to close their doors. Those who support the bill said it will do no such thing.

“We know that many states and cities have already passed this type of legislation with great success, and we know that many employers in the city and beyond have already instituted on their own paid sick leave," said Tara Pfeiffer, staff attorney with the Women’s Law Project. "Many of them are surviving, and most of them are thriving.”

The Paid Sick Days Act was introduced by Councilman Corey O’Connor earlier this month. Its amended version would require businesses with 15 or more employees to allow workers to earn one hour of sick pay for every 35 hours worked with an annual cap at 40 hours. Employees at smaller businesses would accrue fewer hours.

Jeff Cohen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said that leaves the door open for employees to take advantage, and added it’s not paid sick leave, but rather paid days off.

“I can tell you in my company, (when) most people take time off ... they go to Kennywood, they’re doing something with their kids, they want to take a day early for vacation, they have something to do," Cohen said. "But when they’re sick, they don’t come to work.”

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
Jeff Cohen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, drew jeers and fake coughs and sneezes as he voiced opposition to the Paid Sick Days Act.

At this, the standing-room crowd feigned coughs and sneezes behind Cohen to drown him out. His time was already up, but it prompted Council President Bruce Kraus to speak up.

“Everyone – friendly reminder – opposing opinions are always welcome in this chamber," he said. "It’s called democracy, so we’re going to be civil. Everyone is going to have their say. This is information gathering for the council. We want to hear from you regardless of who you are or what opinion you’re bringing into the chamber.”

Cohon fake-coughed as he left the lectern, but things calmed down after that, though some comments still drew gasps and quieter jeers.

Julie Curry works at a Giant Eagle in Washington County. This legislation would not impact her at this time, but she says its passage would cause a chain reaction. Curry wraps fresh meat and handles prepared foods such as meatballs and meatloaf. She said she and others aren’t looking for free days off, just for time to care for themselves or for family members.

“If I’m sick, I either have to call off and lose pay and get points toward my attendance, or I come to work sick and infect my coworkers and ultimately the public,” she said.

Curry said if an employee gets a specific number of points off attendance, they are removed from the schedule.

Nikki Liu of Service Employees International Union 32BJ clarified that paid sick time won't be given to every employee off the bat, but that it must be earned and accrued.

“Implying that employees are going to abuse it and not earn it is a complete fallacy,” she said. “An employee has to work 90 days before even starting to use their paid sick time, as the law is written, and they have to work 35 hours to accrue even one hour of paid sick time off.”

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
Council President Bruce Kraus outlines rules of the public hearing. Council members Corey O'Connor and Darlene Harris were among those in attendance.

Other opponents said the proposal was pushed through too quickly, is too broad, will cost employers and may even promote unhealthy behavior by not holding workers accountable for their health.

“Individuals can continue negative behavior, such as smoking, excessive drinking, illegal drugs, poor food (and) nutritional choices," said Steve Shivak, president of the SMC Business Councils trade association. "Individuals can forego annual flu shots, physicals, regular visits to the doctor, regular exercise and more. This bill requires businesses to be accountable for what citizens do on their time.” 

Supporters of paid sick days said it boils down to a public health issue, including someone dressed as a giant booger:

“I'm Sam the Snot. When workers go to work sick, I end up in your food, on your tables, on your children and on your groceries!”

Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco have all passed similar accommodations. City Council is slated to reconsider the bill next week.