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City Council Moves To Extend COVID Sick Leave Benefits Indefinitely

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
City Councilor Bobby Wilson has sponsored a bill to leave COVID sick-leave benefits intact until 90 percent of Pennsylvanians are vaccinated against the virus.

Fear of the coronavirus may be ebbing as vaccines take hold and case numbers drop, but Pittsburgh City Council is taking no chances — it is poised to indefinitely extend an enhanced sick-leave benefit for those who contract COVID-19.

“It’s a serious virus, and we need to take it seriously,” said City Councilor Bobby Wilson, who is pushing for the extension.

Passed last year,the COVID-19 sick leave billgrants 80 hours of paid sick leave to employees who catch the virus, if they worked at least 40 hours a week for an employer with at least 50 workers. A broader sick-leave requirement had gone into effect earlier in the year, but officials worried that because workers had so little time to accrue time off under the first ordinance, it would do little to rein in the virus. They also feared that the virus would burn through many workers’ existing time off at a faster-than-expected rate.

But the COVID-19 leave bill also was due to expire when either the city or the state — whichever came first — lifted declarations of emergency that stemmed from the virus. That happened in June, after voters approved a ballot question that gave the Republican-controlled legislature the power to end a state of emergency.

Wilson’s amendment replaces the emergency-declaration requirement with a much higher bar: vaccinating 90 percent of Pennsylvanians against the virus.

Experts say that rate would be very high — and not attainable anytime soon.

“Even the better-performing states have rates much lower than 90 percent,’ said Faina Linkov, an associate professor who chairs Duquesne University's School of Health Administration and Public Health. “We’re talking about 90 percent of people of any age, and as of today, the vaccine isn’t approved for people under the age of 12," she said. "Even not accounting for children, [90 percent] would be kind of high.”

Slightly more than 60 percent of Pennsylvania adults have been fully vaccinated as of this week, federal data shows. And health experts say that factors such as a politically charged “vaccine hesitancy” will make it harder to deliver vaccine to people who haven’t already gotten shots.

Wilson readily acknowledges his legislation sets a tough goal.

“I implore the state of Pennsylvania to get to 90 percent, but in times of some doubt in individuals that may not want to be vaccinated, it may be hard to get to that number,” he said. “But I believe we need to keep this in place for as long as this virus is around.”

The Pennsylvania Restaurant Association opposed the COVID-19 sick leave bill last year out of concern that the city ordinance, unlike similar mandates at the federal level, did not provide aid to businesses that already were hurting and would have to pay the benefit. Melissa Bova, a spokeswoman for the association, said that the association’s worst fears hadn’t played out “only because the federal government extended the tax credits that we use. So it hasn’t been the issue we thought it might be.”

Still, she said, those credits are set to expire at the end of the year, while it could take far longer than that for 90 percent of the state to get vaccinations — if it ever does.

“This could go on in perpetuity,” Bova said. And she said that while it was one thing to craft special rules in the midst of a pandemic, “to have this piecemeal legislation on one specific issue makes things complicated.”

Linkov made a similar point: that other diseases deserve similar consideration.

“Sick people need to be staying at home overall, and people with communicable diseases need to get care from their loved ones,” she said. “We need to have the same provisions for other communicable diseases,” especially if Wilson's lofty target means the COVID-19 benefits will last in perpetuity.

Wilson said he would be happy to expand benefits across the board. “We should always be looking at how to implement the best workspace for workers, wages for workers and also the health of our workers,” he said.

Council gave unanimous preliminary approval to his amendment without debate on Wednesday. A final vote is set for next week.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.