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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules That Pittsburgh's Paid Sick Leave Law Can Stand

90.5 WESA

It took four years, but many more employees in Pittsburgh are now poised to earn paid sick leave. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a city law that requires employers to give time off for illness.


Pittsburgh city councilor Corey O’Connor sponsored the Paid Sick Days Act, which the city passed in 2015. He called Wednesday’s ruling "a huge win for workers."

*This story was updated on Wednesday, July 17 at 7:56 p.m.

“Not only in the city of Pittsburgh,” he said, “but this creates a path for other municipalities to fight for workers' rights as well. So I think it’s a historic day for workers and economic justice.”


The ordinance requires employers with fewer than 15 workers to provide at least three paid sick days a year. Larger organizations must provide at least five days a year.


Some local employers sued, arguing that state law bars municipalities from regulating businesses. Lower courts ruled in the employers’ favor, but on Wednesday, the justices said Pittsburgh’s ordinance falls within the city's power to protect public health.


They said Pittsburgh derives this authority from the Pennsylvania’s Disease Prevention and Control Law, even though the challengers argued that municipalities ordinarily cannot regulate businesses without the “express” permission of the state legislature.


Melissa Bova of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association said the decision was disappointing.


“The basis of our industry is flexibility. This takes away flexibility,” she said.


Now, Bova added, local employers will need time to review their policies and bring them into compliance with the city ordinance.


Businesses, however, scored a victory in another case on Wednesday. The state’s high court struck down a city law that required more training for building security officers. The justices said that requirement went too far in regulating business.


In a majority opinion authored by Justice David Wecht, the court said Pittsburgh did not identify a state law that would allow such a move.


In a separate opinion, Justice Kevin Dougherty criticized the majority’s decision to strike down the tougher training standards while letting the paid sick leave ordinance stand.


He called the majority’s treatment of the two laws “unbalanced,” with the court failing “to engage in an equally liberal construction” when considering state statutes that could justify the security training ordinance.


Meanwhile, three other justices, including Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and justices Max Baer and Sallie Mundy, dissented from the court’s decision to uphold the paid sick leave law.


Baer wrote in his own opinion that the state legislature “simply [did] not provide express statutory authority” to allow Pittsburgh to mandate paid sick leave for employees who work at private businesses.


Sam Williamson leads the union that represents the workers, and that backed the building-security law. He said he is still evaluating the rulings. But overall, he says, the decision to uphold paid sick days is a key win for workers.


“That’s a really important takeaway here, … that the Supreme Court is opening up sort of a broader – we would say fairer – interpretation of state law.”

Wednesday's opinions mostly broke down along partisan lines. Mundy and Saylor are Republicans, while the four-justice majority that upheld the sick-leave bill included Wecht, Dougherty, and Christine Donohue -- three Democrats elected in 2015, a year in which their party swept statewide judicial elections. Democrat Deborah Todd joined them: Baer, although a Democrat, is often a swing vote. 


Republicans in Harrisburg have already shown a willingness to rein in local officials' efforts to impose sick leave and other requirements. York County state Rep. Seth Grove, for one, has proposed a bill to prevent Pennsylvania municipalities from passing labor policies, in an effort to “ensure uniform workplace policies and a predictable economic policy across the state.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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