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Walton Vows To Cast ‘No’ Vote On Allegheny County Paid Sick Days Bill, Likely Killing It

dewitt_walton_photo.jpg
Jared Murphy
/
90.5 WESA
Democrat DeWitt Walton appeared to sound the death knell for a paid sick leave bill pending before Allegheny County Council when he said on Thursday, March 18, that he will retract his support for the legislation.

A proposal to mandate paid sick days in Allegheny County appears destined to die two days after county executive Rich Fitzgerald vetoed the measure. Democratic councilor DeWitt Walton said Thursday that he will not back an effort to override the veto, even though he originally voted in favor of the legislation. With Walton’s defection, the veto-proof majority the bill once enjoyed appears to have collapsed.

Walton echoed Fitzgerald’s argument that council had overstepped its authority by passing the bill in the first place. He agreed that, under state law, only the county’s Board of Health could establish health-related regulations such as a paid sick days requirement.

“I would much rather take the time – whether it's 30 days, whether it's 45 days – and do it in the appropriate manner to ensure that irrespective of anything else, we pass legal muster,” Walton said.

He added that he had expected that Fitzgerald would oppose the legislation: Days before council first voted on the measure, the executive’s office informed Walton and other councilors of Fitzgerald's reservations about the bill’s legality.

Walton said he originally voted to pass the bill anyway because he believes in offering paid sick leave to workers.

“Despite my better judgment … I did not want to put myself in a position that I could be portrayed as being anti-worker,” said Walton, a longtime employee of the United Steelworkers union.

“We should have [pursued the legislation] in the appropriate manner from the outset, and we would not be where we are today,” Walton said.

Walton’s reversal marks the latest twist in a nearly year-long push to enact a countywide paid sick leave ordinance

Despite saying he “fully” supports paid sick time protections, Fitzgerald said county council’s attempt to pass its own legislation on the topic is barred under state law. Council, Fitzgerald said, only has the power to approve or reject health-related regulations submitted by the Board of Health.

“This process was not followed,” Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to council Tuesday. “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.”

Some have faulted Fitzgerald for not earlier expressing his concerns about the bill more forcefully, given that council had worked on the measure for months. But Walton said, “I am not going to get caught in what should have happened or who should have spoken up first or how soon.”

Council’s bill would require businesses with more than 25 employees to give most full-time workers five paid sick days a year. It passed in a 10-4 vote last week.

Proponents view it as a key public health measure because it promises to keep employees from coming to work sick and spreading disease – a risk that has become more urgent amid the coronavirus pandemic. But opponents argue that, because the pandemic has hurt businesses, the bill would create an excessive burden for them.

There’s disagreement among attorneys over whether state law actually stops council from drawing up such legislation. But with the bill’s expected demise, that argument is now likely moot.

Uncertainty remains, meanwhile, over how long it could take the health board to establish a sick time policy.

Fitzgerald said he’s already asked the county health department director, Dr. Debra Bogen, and health board chair, Dr. Lee Harrison, to begin the process of writing regulations. And on Wednesday, Bogen said that her agency is reviewing the issue and that she expects it to be a topic at a future Board of Health meeting.

The board next meets in May. Its nine members are appointed by the county executive with approval from county council. While a spokesperson for Fitzgerald said there is no set timeframe for board deliberations, Walton said he believed the board could draft regulations in as little as 30 days, at which point they would be subject to council’s and Fitzgerald’s approval.

In the past, however, the regulatory process has lasted months. For example, health officials spent half of 2016 developing the county’s prohibition on e-cigarettes and vaping in most indoor public places. Before finalizing the policy, the board held a public hearing and accepted written comments from community members. Council took an additional four months to approve the legislation.

Fitzgerald has said his office has already gotten started on the issue of sick days. In his letter to council Tuesday, the executive said that, before the pandemic, his administration had begun to explore options for enacting paid sick leave.

“We had dozens of conversations with stakeholders to hear their input,” Fitzgerald wrote. But, “as the coronavirus numbers increased locally, our attention and time had to turn to [the COVID-19] response.”

Fitzgerald said he again convened a group of stakeholders earlier this year to discuss their views on sick leave.

A Democratic sponsor of the sick days bill, Bethany Hallam, noted that she only learned of those discussions in Fitzgerald’s Tuesday letter announcing his veto.

One of Fitzgerald’s fiercest critics, Hallam said, “To me, it's all just a smokescreen: Let's make this go away and hope everyone forgets about it. Well, we're not going to forget about this. And it's frustrating that this process has been delayed for a year already.”

Alluding to the continuing threat of COVID-19, Hallam added, “The people of Allegheny County do not have any more time to wait while their lives are at stake because of politics.”

Hallam noted that 15 years ago, as a council member himself, Fitzgerald sponsored a bill to ban smoking indoors at most public places. At the time, he argued against waiting for the health board to act on the issue first. Although the legislation was enacted, a state appeals court struck it down, saying it was preempted by state law.

Fitzgerald did not respond to Hallam’s criticism of his record as a councilor.

Hallam said she will introduce a motion at council’s next meeting Tuesday to override Fitzgerald’s veto. Seeming to anticipate the possibility that such a vote would fail, bill co-sponsor and council President Pat Catena, a Democrat, had advised the health department on Tuesday to “begin the process of developing regulations immediately.”

Allegheny County Labor Council President Darrin Kelly, a strong supporter of the paid sick time bill, had similarly expressed an openness to pursuing the idea through the Board of Health.

“We've all come too far in the fight for paid leave to let it die now, when we're so close to getting it done,” Kelly wrote in a statement Tuesday. “It seems like all parties share an interest in making this happen, so I hope we can all work together and find the path forward.”

“If there was a problem with the process, let’s fix it and do whatever we need to do to get this law passed and protect our workers,” he said.

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