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Paid Sick Days Bill Returns To Allegheny County Council

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Councilor Tom Duerr, a Democrat, co-sponsored a bill to mandate paid sick leave at workplaces across the county. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vetoed the legislation in March, but Duerr says he will vote in favor of a similar proposal that the county's Board of Health approved in July.

Five months after a countywide paid sick leave proposal died, Allegheny County Council is set to take up a similar measure Tuesday. The bill could even receive a final vote Tuesday, if two-thirds of the 15-member council opts to bypass the committee review process that most bills are required to clear.

The original paid sick days proposal had the support of two-thirds of council, with the body’s three Republicans and Democrat John Palmiere casting the only dissenting votes. But Democratic County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vetoed the legislation, saying that by law, the county Board of Health must first approve any health regulations.

In July, the board signed off on a policy that closely resembles the vetoed bill. It, too, would require firms with more than 25 employees to give full-time workers up to five paid sick days a year. Employees would be allowed to use paid sick time to care for themselves or a sick family member.

Democratic Councilor Tom Duerr, a co-sponsor of the original bill, said he'll support the new proposal, even though he wishes it would cover all employers.

The carve-out — which was attached as an amendment to the bill Duerr helped sponsor despite his opposition — was meant to give relief to small businesses, many of them still reeling from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. But workers at smaller firms are no less likely to contract or spread disease than those at larger ones, Duerr noted.

Still, he said, the new bill marks “a good first step to creating that policy that will help us tackle things preemptively for future health [crises]. … We have put too much work into this, both on our end [and] from the Board of Health, to get this to a place where I can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Things can always be amended and changed after the fact. There is no perfect bill,” Duerr said.

County council itself cannot alter the health board’s proposal, meaning that if the measure passes, the board will need to draft and approve any changes. At the health board's July meeting, some board members said they would like to reconsider the exemption for smaller workplaces.

Even so, the board’s proposed regulation covers more employees than the bill Fitzgerald vetoed in March, because it does not exclude unionized construction workers. (Independent contractors, state and federal workers, and seasonal employees still aren't covered under the board’s rules, however.)

Unlike the county council bill, the health board’s proposal limits the penalty for each violation of the sick leave policy to a $100 fine, or equivalent sanction. Council’s original legislation would have given the county an option to order full restitution of lost wages and benefits, as well as reinstatement to a lost job.

Dan Davis, an economic-justice organizer at activist group Pittsburgh United, said the health board should revisit its decision to undo that provision, which Davis said “gives more to the workers that are most affected.”

“One hundred dollars just seems like a slap on the wrist,” Davis said. “And we're talking about, in some cases, multinational companies that bring in millions or more every year.”

Even so, Davis said that Pittsburgh United, which has long pushed for paid sick time protections, supports the health board’s proposal. “It is a long … overdue necessity that workers should be getting paid sick days,” Davis said.

Democratic County Councilor Bethany Hallam similarly backs the new legislation despite seeing opportunities for improvement.

A sponsor of the original county council bill, Hallam said that a future version of the policy should include paid “safe days” for employees dealing with domestic violence or sexual assault. In addition, she said, there should be provisions to ensure that tipped workers are compensated for lost tips when they call off sick.

“The bill that council passed is not extremely different from the bill that the Board of Health put in front of us. So I will definitely be voting for it,” Hallam said. And it’s partly for that reason that she remains frustrated that Fitzgerald stalled the legislation with his March veto.

“The way that the county executive went about vetoing a bill that was a good bill and then basically copying it with very few changes and presenting it as his own,” she said, “all it did was delay all of the residents of the county from being able to start accruing paid sick leave.”

Duerr noted, however, that, by submitting the health board measure to council Tuesday, Fitzgerald will have fulfilled a pledge he made in March to introduce the proposal by this fall. Council’s health and human services committee, by contrast, spent nearly a year weighing the original sick leave legislation.

Having “spent so much time talking about this particular subject,” Duerr said, it is possible that council will choose to cast its final vote on the health board proposal on Tuesday. To do so, at least 10 councilors would need to vote to skip the standard committee process. If council sticks with the committee review, the earliest it could vote on the sick leave bill would be Sept. 14.

“I certainly think, given the wide berth of support [the bill] got initially, that [bypassing the committee review] isn't completely off the table,” Duerr said. “Hypothetically, if the same 10 people who voted for it the first time vote to waive [the committee process], we could pass this [Tuesday].”

Duerr said he didn’t know what would happen, but he added, "I'll certainly have that conversation with my colleagues to get their thoughts” on skipping the committee process.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.