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Allegheny County Council OKs wage increase for county employees

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Council voted Tuesday to increase the minimum wage for people employed by the county.

The vote was 10-4 in favor of an ordinance that sets a pay floor for all hourly county employees, including full-time, part-time and seasonal workers.

The bill would raise the minimum wage to $18 an hour in 2024, and then increase by a dollar-per-hour to $19 in 2025 and $20 in 2026.

Council member Bethany Hallam, a Democrat, introduced the bill a year ago.

“The basic principle is simple: We want to pay county employees a competitive minimum wage because we need to be fair to our employees in order to attract and retain qualified and motivated individuals,” Hallam said before the vote Tuesday.

She told WESA last month that the bill is an important step towards improving quality of life for county employees. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has sat at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

“The cost of everything is going up,” Hallam said at the time. “Private entities are paying higher wages to try to keep up and Allegheny County was falling behind.”

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Hallam said the increase will impact more than a thousand people employed by the county. That includes 74 salaried positions, 690 non-salaried positions, and 335 seasonal or part-time positions.

But there has been opposition. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald heavily criticized the bill in May, estimating that the bill would cost taxpayers at least $30 million a year, and that it would “require the largest tax increase in the history of this government.”

Other estimates provided to county council have put the estimate closer to $10 million – a fraction of the county’s $1 billion operating budget.

Amie Downs, a spokesperson for Fitzgerald, previously called the $30 million figure “a moderate estimate that was put together by our Budget Department based on the language of the legislation.” Fitzgerald’s office did not have a comment on Tuesday’s vote.

If current margins of support hold, council could override a Fitzgerald veto: Doing so requires support from 10 of council’s 15 members.

Council members Sam DeMarco, Nick Futules, Bob Macey and DeWitt Walton opposed the legislation. (Suzanne Filiaggi, was absent.)

DeMarco, a Republican, echoed Fitzgerald’s concerns about the potential cost of the bill. He also worried it could violate Pennsylvania labor laws.

“We can't just wave a wand and say, ‘Hey, we're going to give you this’ when we have to take it away from someone else,” he said. “That's what separates us from the private sector. And that's why I can't support this bill tonight.”

Solicitors for Allegheny County and county council came to opposite conclusions about the bill’s legality.

The county’s home rule charter gives council the authority to adopt and amend the administrative code, which includes a personnel system. It also gives council the power to adopt the county budget (which includes payments to county employees) and modify departments and functions that “no longer meets the needs of the County’s taxpayers.”

In an opinion written for county council, solicitor Frederick Frank said that gives council the authority to adjust wages.

“If Council believes that the County cannot attract top talent by paying its current wages, this would concern the functionality of the impacted department and provide Council with the rationale to legislate an appropriate remedy,” Frank wrote.

George Janocsko, the solicitor from the county’s department of law, disagreed, calling the ordinance “an attempt by Council to aggregate to itself a power that it does not possess.”

Janocsko argued that the home rule charter gives the county executive broad authority over government operations, and thus the power to set compensation for county employees.

Janocsko’s opinion also raised concerns that a minimum wage hike could pose a danger to union negotiations. Under the Public Employee Relations Act, Allegheny County’s county executive is required to negotiate wages and other terms of employment with union representatives. Janocsko said the ordinance would undermine the unions’ ability to bargain.

That isn’t how unions apparently saw it. Allegheny Fayette Labor Council president Darrin Kelly said the bill “does not undermine the unions’ ability to negotiate at all.”

As current labor agreements expire, he said, “This sets a floor for the men and women that work hard every day in government.”

Kelly said he wasn’t aware of any union representing county workers that opposes the bill.

“We believe with everything happening right now in the job market, with government going against the private sector, it makes [government] that much more attractive” to county workers, he said. “We're very excited about it.”

Local unions contacted by WESA voiced support for boosting the wage.

“A $20 minimum wage for all county workers is necessary and long overdue,” said SEIU Local 668 spokesperson Rick Grejda, whose union represents some county workers. “Improving wages is necessary to recruit and retain county government workers who provide essential services to their community.”

"No worker — union or non-union — should be paid less than a living wage,” said Bernie Hall, District 10 Director for U.S. Steelworkers in a statement. The Steelworkers represents some county employees, including unionized workers at the county’s four Kane Community Living Centers.

“It would benefit everyone in the region if the county's minimum wage were increased,” Hall said.

Notably, one of the few votes opposed to the bill was cast by Democrat DeWitt Walton, who has long been employed by the Steelworkers union himself. Walton said little about the measure before casting his vote, asserting only that “the legislation is basically flawed and as a result I’m voting no.”

He did not describe those flaws, nor participate in other discussion of the bill Tuesday. But in a committee discussion in April, he said he had concerns about cost.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at