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Allegheny County Council Passes Paid Sick Leave Mandate Despite Concerns It Could Invite Lawsuit

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Democrat Pat Catena is the prime sponsor of an Allegheny County Council bill that would require businesses that employ more than 25 people to offer five paid sick days annually to those who work full-time.

A bill that would require employers across Allegheny County to give workers five paid sick days a year easily won the approval of county council Tuesday. But its prospects remain uncertain amid concern that procedural problems could doom it should its legality be challenged.

Council voted 10-4-1 to pass the measure. Its supporters included Democrats Liv Bennett, Pat Catena, Tom Duerr, Bethany Hallam, Paul Klein, Bob Macey, Bob Palmosina, Anita Prizio, DeWitt Walton, and Paul Zavarella. Democrat John Palmiere joined Republicans Tom Baker, Sam DeMarco, and Cindy Kirk in voting against the bill. Democrat Nick Futules abstained, saying that he had a conflict of interest as a business owner.

Having received the backing of two-thirds of council members, the bill appears to have the level of support needed to overcome a potential veto by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. He has yet to take a position on the bill.

Before casting his vote in favor of the bill, Duerr said the legislation was key to promoting public health. “We cannot continue to shortchange public health," he said. Referring to the coronavirus pandemic, he added, "We have seen the past year, to our own detriment, what happens when you cut corners when it comes to the health and well-being of a community."

Proponents of the legislation note that studies show that paid sick leave helps to curb the spread of disease. But opponents say the policy hurts businesses, many of which are still reeling from the pandemic.

“I am very disappointed that this will be enacted in the middle of a state of emergency in the state of Pennsylvania during COVID, that we’re adding one additional burden and that the council doesn’t see fit to delay it until at least after the state of emergency is over,” Kirk said before voting against the bill. 

Tuesday’s vote came almost a year after Catena, Hallam, and Prizio introduced the legislation, with strong support from workers represented by the 32BJ SEIU service employees union and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association and local business owners were among the bill’s detractors.

The legislation that council passed Tuesday would require firms with more than 25 employees to provide five paid sick days a year to those who work full-time. Employees could use the time to care for a family member who is ill. The legislation excludes independent contractors, state and federal workers, construction union members covered by a collective bargaining unit, and seasonal employees.

While no precise figures are available on how many workplaces the sick leave policy would cover, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 18% of nearly 34,000 establishments in Allegheny County have at least 20 employees.

Fitzgerald has seven days to sign the bill, but he has not committed to doing so.

“Like we do with each piece of legislation,” Fitzgerald’s spokesperson, Amie Downs, said in a statement, “we will await the final version from council before it is reviewed and any determination made as to potential actions.”

Before Tuesday’s vote, Downs noted that Fitzgerald had doubts about the timing and legality of the legislation.

“The county executive has been and is supportive of the idea of paid sick leave,” she said. “He believes that it needs to be done properly and should not be seen as responsive to the COVID pandemic, but … instead [as] a policy that is in the best interest of county taxpayers regardless of the time frame or external pressures.”

In her statement, Downs also said that state law does not allow county council to initiate legislation meant to prevent and control disease transmission. Rather, she said, “That process begins with the [Allegheny County] Board of Health, with final rules approved by the board submitted to county council and the county executive for approval or disapproval.”

A solicitor for the county administration, Andy Szefi, raised the same concern in a letter to council prior to Tuesday’s vote. He noted that, in a 2019 ruling that upheld a paid sick leave law in Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that state law does not give county governments the power to enact health-related regulations without action from a board of health or state health officials.

But there’s debate over whether that observation would stop county legislators from first proposing a paid sick leave policy. And on Tuesday, county council’s solicitor, Jack Cambest, said, “I can honestly say to you that the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue … I don’t know that Mr. Szefi or I or any other attorney can make that decision right now.”

Still, DeMarco warned that the issue could lead to a lawsuit. “And the people that are looking for help from this ordinance today are going to be sorely disappointed when that help is forestalled because this thing is going to be challenged. It’s going to be set aside until it’s heard in court.”

But Klein dismissed that criticism. Conflicting legal opinions are “part and parcel of the legal system,” the Democrat said. “So in light of that, we are cast out as members of this body to make a decision.”

Meanwhile, Downs said that the health board, whose nine members are nominated by the executive and confirmed by council, has not considered drafting sick leave rules. She added that, if the board were to prioritize the issue, there would be no set timeframe for adopting any new rules.

The bill that council approved Tuesday would have Fitzgerald’s office begin immediately to develop regulations to implement the measure. The administration would choose an agency within county government to create the rules and share them with employers. Enforcement would begin 90 days after that work is complete.