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City Preliminarily Approves COVID Sick Leave Bill, Critics Worry About Cost To Businesses

Keith Srakocic

Pittsburgh City Council preliminarily approved a COVID sick leave bill on Wednesday that would require employers with over 50 employees to provide paid sick leave for those sidelined by the coronavirus.

The bill would supplement a broader sick-leave bill that began to take effect last year. Supporters say the unexpected onset of the pandemic has stressed existing sick-leave policies.

"If somebody has to use all of their time in January because of COVID, they don’t have any sick leave days left for the entire year," Dan Gilman, Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff, told council on Wednesday. "So we really see a need to have a separate emergency COVID sick leave."

Currently, a federal law requires businesses to provide time off due to COVID, but it is set to expire at the end of the year. Pittsburgh's bill, which Peduto proposed last week, would continue the requirement until the city lifts its own declaration of emergency, or when the commonwealth lifts its own; whichever comes first.

The city measure would extend the federal rule in another way, by applying to any employer with more than 50 workers. The federal law does not apply to firms with more than 500 employees.

But Melissa Bova, the vice president of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the organization has concerns about Pittsburgh's bill -- namely the fact that employers would not be reimbursed for providing the sick leave. Under the federal bill, businesses that provide the paid sick leave are reimbursed for providing the time off. The city's bill requires those businesses to bear the costs themselves.

“It’s another burden on businesses that are struggling right now,” Bova said. “We appreciate the intent of the bill, but we have a number of concerns regarding the impact the bill would have on an industry that’s already decimated.”

Bova said restaurants have been hurt by months of coronavirus restrictions that have limited capacity, hours, and alcohol consumption.

“The city of Pittsburgh should be focused on getting the federal government to extend that leave to ensure that businesses can still provide the leave, while not putting the cost and burden on the backs of business owners themselves,” Bova said. 

Bova's group waged a years-long legal battle over another city sick-leave bill first adopted in 2015. The state Supreme Court finally upheld that ordinance in 2019. Bova said she doesn’t see the association legally challenging the new bill, though she does believe it is further reaching than the 2015 measure.

Labor advocates, meanwhile, support the new initiative.

“We have members and many other workers across the city have to quarantine because of exposure at work or because they tested positive, and not have anywhere enough paid sick days to cover that entire period of time,” said Sam Williamson, the western Pennsylvania director of SEIU B32BJ. The union represents custodial, building security and other service-sector jobs.

Williamson added that with the federal 500-employee cap left out many employees, and said the city’s bill could help workers at several large employers in Pittsburgh.

Union activists point to people like Darlene Simpson as likely beneficiaries of the COVID leave bill. Simpson is a commercial cleaner who was potentially exposed to the coronavirus by a household member: Her employer told her she had to take a COVID test and quarantine herself while awaiting results. While she was told she would receive paid leave if the test came back positive, she hasn't been paid for the time she spent in quarantine.

“I asked, 'Would I be paid?' and they told me to call human resources, which I did several times," Simpson said. "And here we are, two-and-a-half weeks later and no one has returned my calls."

Simpson tested negative, but although she returned to work this week, she doesn't expect a paycheck for another two weeks.

“That’s a month with no money,” she said. “And I have bills to pay, rent, food, any necessity that you might need."

Pittsburgh isn't the only city trying to cobble together local solutions to the economic pain caused by the coronavirus. Earlier this year, Philadelphia passed a law that required employers with 500 or more employees to provide up to 112 hours of paid sick leave for certain circumstances during the pandemic. Those circumstances included caring for themselves or a family member showing symptoms of COVID and childcare closure.

Bova said her group supported that effort and called it “a very reasonable piece of legislation. We would like to have that same conversation and compromise with the city of Pittsburgh.”

“The main things are that it covers employees that is not in the federal bill,” said Sam Jones, Director for the Restaurant Opportunity Center PA, based out in Philadelphia said they also supported the bill. However, they are now working to have it extended, as it expires at the end of the month, much like the federal bill.

On Wednesday, City Council voted to hold a separate special discussion of the city bill next week. But councilors acknowledged that the federal protections expire this month, and said they want to have a final vote on the local ordinance before that happens.