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Committee Considers Changes To Allegheny County Paid Sick Leave Bill

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Republican Cindy Kirk, chair of the Allegheny County Council health and human services committee, has overseen council's review of a proposed paid sick leave mandate.

An Allegheny County Council committee resumed discussions Wednesday over a bill that would mandate paid sick leave at most workplaces in the county. But with several major changes to the bill still on the table, the panel will need to convene at least once more before the full council votes on it.

The sick leave measure would require companies with 15 or more workers to provide at least five paid sick days annually to those who work full-time. Employees at smaller firms could accrue up to three sick days a year. The legislation does not cover independent contractors, state and federal workers, construction union members covered by a collective bargaining unit, or seasonal employees.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting of the health and human services committee, Republican committee chair Cindy Kirk and Democrat Bob Macey submitted a dozen amendments. They mainly sought to limit the bill's scope and to add new safeguards for businesses. Some of their proposals would make significant changes to the legislation.

One proposed by Macey, for example, would exempt firms with 50 or fewer workers from all paid sick time requirements. Another submitted by Kirk would delay implementation of the policy until Jan. 1, 2023.

On Wednesday, though, the panel did not take up either of those provisions and instead voted on just five of 10 other amendments that Kirk had sponsored. The Republican said she plans to hold another meeting next week to consider additional changes.

Kirk’s committee has been weighing the sick leave bill since Democrats Pat Catena, Bethany Hallam, and Anita Prizio introduced it in April. Council had at one point hoped to make a final decision on the proposal by last fall. But despite the delay, and despite reservations she’s previously voiced about the bill, Kirk expressed some optimism about its prospects Wednesday.

“We’ve worked on this too long to not come up with something that we all can agree … is the best thing for our 1.2 million people in the county,” she said. “We’re all going to be voting on this hopefully soon.”

On Wednesday, three of Kirk’s own proposed amendments failed.

The first would have limited the bill’s anti-retaliation provision, which applies to the use of any sick time, whether paid or not. Kirk proposed restricting the protection to the use of paid sick time only. But Democrats Liv Bennett, Tom Duerr,and Paul Zavarella voted with Prizio against the idea. Macey and Republican Tom Baker joined Kirk in supporting it.

The committee also blocked restrictions on what type of licensed health care professionals could provide credible doctor’s excuses for workers who miss three or more days of work. Kirk said that doctor's notes should only be considered "resonable documentation" if they come from providers whose practice covers an employee's ailment. For example, Kirk suggested, it could be unreasonable for a licensed physical therapist to certify that an employee has a heart condition. Only Baker and Macey voted with her, however.

Kirk was also on the losing side of a vote regarding her proposal to beef up outreach requirements for employers who do not speak English as their first language or who could have difficulty interpreting the sick leave policy in writing. Baker and Bennett joined Kirk in voting for the amendment, but Prizio said it should have covered employees, too.

Kirk did manage to win approval of an amendment that would limit the amount of unused paid sick time employees can roll over to the next year. Under the provision, workers would not be entitled to more than 40 hours of sick leave in a given year, or 24 hours if they work at a company with fewer than 15 employees. Bennett, Macey, and Prizio opposed the change.

The committee also debated, but did not vote on, a provision that would reduce from six months to 90 days the amount of time employees have to file complaints alleging violations of the sick leave policy. That amendment also would have required the county to notify employers, not just employees, of updates in cases that stem from a complaint. Councilors who did not want to speed up the timeline for filing complaints requested that the two changes be rewritten as standalone amendments so they could be voted on separately.

The panel also decided to delay a vote on a proposal that would exclude substitute teachers from the sick leave benefit. Kirk had sought to accommodate school superintendents who worry about tracking the hours of substitutes. But the committee decided to gather more information before taking a vote.

County council’s sick leave bill mirrors a Pittsburgh city ordinance that survived a challenge at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2019.

At two meetings last year, Kirk's committee gathered testimony from supporters and opponents of the county-level bill. The SEIU service employees union, hourly workers, and public health advocates are among the most vocal proponents of the bill, while the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association and business owners are among its fiercest critics.

Advocates of the legislation say it will promote economic fairness and public health. Research shows that paid sick time helps people to avoid spreading disease because it keeps them from coming to work while ill. Supporters argue that the coronavirus underscores the need for sick leave benefits.

But opponents counter that the pandemic has put many businesses under tremendous strain. Some argue that it will be another year or two before firms can reasonably be expected to pay for sick leave. Others warn that over the long term, the policy could discourage employers from locating in Allegheny County.