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Allegheny County Sick Leave Bill Stalls, But Hair Discrimination Ban Returns To Council For Vote

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Democratic Allegheny County Councilor Liv Bennett is the primary sponsor of bills that would make Juneteenth a holiday for county workers and ban discrimination based on hairstyles.

Prospects remain unclear for an Allegheny County Council bill that would mandate paid sick leave throughout the county. A committee met to discuss the bill Thursday, but six months after the legislation was introduced, there are no signs it will receive a vote anytime soon. 

Meanwhile, a separate committee has backed legislation to ban discrimination based on hairstyles, and to make Juneteenth a holiday for county government workers.

The sick-leave legislation saw less action Thursday because Democrat Bob Macey said he wanted more time to vet the measure, which would require most of the county’s employers to give workers three to five paid sick days a year. Macey presided over Thursday’s health and human services committee meeting in the absence of Republican committee chair Cindy Kirk.

“This is a rough time to ask businesses and other organizations to spend more money than they have,” Macey said, alluding to the toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on many employers. But he added, “We certainly don’t want to have people going to work that are sick.”

While Macey did not say whether he supports the legislation, Democratic bill co-sponsor Anita Prizio said the potential spread of COVID-19 underscores the need for paid sick time off.

“That’s why I think it’s so important to pass this now, because we don’t want workers to come to work if they’re sick,” she said. “We’re not only affecting their co-workers, but we’re also affecting our customers. And I don’t really think that’s a very prudent business decision.”

But considering the economic pain the pandemic has caused for businesses, Democrat Nick Futules countered, “This is certainly not the time to consider [mandated paid sick leave], not even this year, not even next year.”

Noting that his own catering business was slow to bounce back from the Great Recession, he predicted, “The restaurant industry will take years to recover" from the pandemic.

Under the paid sick leave bill, employers with 15 or more workers would be required to provide at least five paid sick days annually. Smaller organizations would need to offer at least three days a year, and the legislation would not cover independent contractors, state and federal workers, construction union members covered by a collective bargaining unit, or seasonal employees.

Democrats Olivia Bennett, Pat Catena, Bethany Hallam, and Anita Prizio introduced the measure in April, less than a year after a similar policy in the city of Pittsburgh withstood a legal challenge brought by local businesses.

Republican committee chair Cindy Kirk had said in May that she hoped to return the bill for a full council vote in September. But while the committee heard testimony from proponents and critics in June, it did not discuss the measure again until Thursday, when it took more testimony. Mia Benson, of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, spoke Thursday in favor of the legislation, while Eric Montarti, research director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, and Melissa Bova, vice president for government affairs at the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, voiced their opposition.

Democrat Bethany Hallam had previously said she plans to propose an amendment to the bill that would provide paid days off for people experiencing domestic violence. And on Thursday, Democrat Tom Duerr said he will introduce an amendment to delay enforcement of the legislation until a year after passage. That way, he said, council could mitigate “the potential … burden this [proposal] could put on already-struggling businesses.”

Kirk and Macey have stopped councilors from introducing amendments at previous meetings, saying they needed more time to discuss the bill. On Thursday, Macey said the committee should meet again, but he did not indicate whether it would take any votes at that meeting.

Council’s government reform committee, meanwhile, took little time at its meeting Thursday to approve legislation that creates anti-discrimination protections for hairstyles. The county already prohibits other forms of discrimination in housing, employment, and other settings. But the new bill says rules about hair often amount to discrimination based on race, gender, and other identities.

Futules and fellow Democratic committee members Liv Bennett, Paul Klein, and Anita Prizio joined Republican Tom Baker in backing the expanded protections. The five councilors also supported a proposal to make Juneteenth, which celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S., a holiday for county employees. Under the legislation, Juneteenth would replace primary election day as a holiday.

The full council is expected to vote on the Juneteenth bill and the hair discrimination ban at its meeting Tuesday.