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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 Approves Paid Sick Days Act

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council on Monday received a standing ovation from activists and workers after it gave final approval to a bill that will require employers to provide paid sick days to workers.

The Paid Sick Days Act requires employers with 15 or more employees to allow workers to accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 35 hours worked, maxing out at 40 hours of paid sick time. For smaller employers with fewer than 15 workers, employees will cap at 24 hours.

The final ordinance is less generous to workers than what primary sponsor Councilman Corey O’Connor had initially proposed. The original version of the bill offered up to nine sick days for employees of larger businesses, and five sick days for smaller businesses.

The version passed on Monday also allows small businesses with fewer than 15 employees to offer only unpaid sick days for the first year of the law’s implementation.

O’Connor said this should give businesses plenty of time to adjust to the new rules.

Seven members of council voted in favor of the bill; Councilwoman Darlene Harris abstained and Councilman Daniel Lavelle voted no.

Lavelle and Harris both said they believed the legislation was pushed through Council too quickly. Lavelle said he was concerned about the effect the ordinance would have on small businesses, and that his suggestion to exempt businesses with fewer than ten employees didn’t inspire much enthusiasm among his colleagues.

Harris said she wasn’t convinced the ordinance would stand up to a legal challenge.

“PA courts have struck down similar ordinances that this council has passed because of being a second class city,” she said. “We are prohibited from placing requirements on private businesses.”

In 2009, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld an Allegheny County court ruling that struck down a 2004 ordinance mandating requirements for businesses who work on a contract basis, such as janitorial services. The high court wrote that Pittsburgh’s home rule charter prohibits the city from determining the “duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers.”

O’Connor said it’s entirely possible that the Paid Sick Days Act will be challenged in court, and that the law’s legality is “up to the judge to decide.”

“Our job is to do something that’s right for the city of Pittsburgh, and I believe we’re doing that today,” he said. “If you look at the room (full) of people that showed up each and every time, you know this is affecting their lives. As elected officials, we have to protect each and every individual in the city of Pittsburgh, and that’s what we’re doing.”

O'Connor said the bill was not pushed through as quickly as it may seem from the outside. Council discussed the proposal for more than three weeks before it was announced in early July, he said. The unusual Monday morning committee meeting, technically a reconvening of last week's meeting, allowed council members to take both preliminary and final votes before its summer recess, which begins Tuesday.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak noted that the ordinance is part of a national movement to protect workers. President Barack Obama in January asked Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which mirrors the Pittsburgh ordinance. But Rudiak said that if Pittsburgh waits for the federal government to act, “we’re going to be waiting decades.”

“It’s a common sense proposition that most people … in other industrialized nations in the world have, but we’re taking it one step at a time here,” she said. “I am proud of the work we’re doing here today. We’re not going to wait for Harrisburg to tell us what we can and cannot do as a city. We’re going to do what’s right for our citizens.”

Republicans in Harrisburg are currently working to stop cities from passing paid sick days ordinances. Senate Bill 333 would allow the state to preempt local labor laws. The measure passed the Senate 37-12 in April and now awaits action in the house. A similar house bill awaits action in the Labor and Industry Committee.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are supporting House Bill 624, which would mandate that all Pennsylvania employers provide employees the opportunity to accrue paid sick time. That bill is also in the Labor and Industry committee.

The Pittsburgh ordinance is expected to be signed into law by Mayor Bill Peduto, according to spokesman Tim McNulty.

O’Connor said it would take effect 90 days after the appropriate rules and regulations are posted online and distributed to businesses by Controller Michael Lamb. If those regulations post in the next two weeks as expected, O’Connor said employees would begin earning sick time by December.