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Allegheny County Executive Defends Decision To Veto Paid Sick Days Bill

Rich Fitzgerald sits at a desk.
Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Citing legal concerns, Democratic Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vetoed a bill that would mandate paid sick leave at workplaces across the county Tuesday, March 16.

A week after a large majority of Allegheny County Council members passed a measure to enact paid sick leave requirements, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vetoed the legislation.

Although he voiced strong support for the idea of paid sick leave, Fitzgerald said that legally the county’s board of health – not county council – is responsible for developing such health-related policies.

“This issue is too important to our community, and particularly to those workers who would have protection in the form of paid sick leave, for it to be done the wrong way,” the Democrat wrote in a letter to council.

“It’s simply not fair to give employees in our county false hope that they’re protected when the process followed by council jeopardizes that,” the letter said. “If we want to protect our residents, families, community and public health, we must do this in the right way to ensure that it withstands any legal challenge.”

As WESA reported last week, one day before council's vote, administration solicitor Andy Szefi sent a memo to council members outlining his reservations about the bill. And in his letter to council Tuesday, Fitzgerald reiterated those concerns, noting that a state law designates county health departments to make and enforce health-related rules and regulations. County lawmakers are responsible for approving such policies, the statute says.

“Oh, that concern is absolute trash,” Democratic bill co-sponsor Bethany Hallam said. “If there was any concern about the legality of the process, it would have been raised over the past year that this [legislation] has been deliberated.”

Fitzgerald disputed Hallam’s account. “A lot of these conversations [about the bill] have been held for a number of months,” he said in an interview. He noted that those discussions took place privately in order “to keep people’s confidence by not going out there and talking about what has been said.”

Hallam, a vocal critic of Fitzgerald’s, said she was never included in those conversations. But Republican Sam DeMarco, who voted against the bill, said he and other councilors had spoken privately with the executive’s office about doubts over the bill’s legality.

In fact, DeMarco said he had engaged the administration “the moment this bill was introduced.” And he said, “The county executive and his office had let us know that they felt the proper place for this to be initiated was the [county] health department.”

Other council members declined to comment on whether they had discussed questions about the bill’s legality with Fitzgerald’s staff in the months leading up to last week’s vote.

Council passed the sick leave measure 10-4, meaning that at the time, the bill had the two-thirds level of support needed to override the county executive’s veto. But the bill’s fate is now uncertain. Hallam and DeMarco agreed that some could reconsider their position. And council President Pat Catena, a Democrat who sponsored the proposal, said in statement Tuesday that he “will need to take a moment to fully review [Fitzgerald’s objections to the bill] and decide what council’s options may be.”

Under the policy, firms with more than 25 employees would be required to give full-time workers five paid sick days a year. Independent contractors, state and federal workers, unionized construction workers, and seasonal employees were not included in the legislation. 

A similar bill passed in the city of Pittsburgh was tied up in litigation for years until it was upheld by the state Supreme Court. The administration cited a part of that  2019 decision that notes that state law does not give county governments the power to enact health-related regulations without action from their health boards or state health officials.

As council debated the measure over the past year, council members occasionally raised questions about the legality of the process and the board of health's role in it. But the questions were never answered publicly. And prior to last week's vote, county council’s solicitor, Jack Cambest, disagreed with the administration's analysis, noting that the state's high court did not directly address whether county council could be stopped from initiating sick leave legislation.

In addition, Hallam said, council’s bill would have the Department of Health draft regulations for implementing the paid sick days policy. Then to comply with state law, Hallam said, council would need to approve those rules before they could take effect.

But DeMarco said that state law requires the health board to work with the health department to craft legislation that involves health issues. Council cannot amend such legislation, DeMarco said, and can only approve or reject what the health board submits to it.

Catena, the council president, said that as council pondered its next move, the health department should "begin the process of developing [its own sick leave] regulations immediately.”

Fitzgerald said Tuesday that he had asked the health department director, Dr. Debra Bogen, and the chair of the board of health, Dr. Lee Harrison, to do “exactly that.”

“Even if Council votes to override the veto of the [regulations] crafted through the wrong process, we will have begun the process to do this the right way,” Fitzgerald said.