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Gainey administration says the new Office of Equal Protection aims to better enforce labor rights

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh has a number of laws on the books designed to protect workers, but according to the city controller’s office, the city does a poor job of enforcing them. In an effort to change that, Mayor Ed Gainey announced Friday the creation of a new office designed to protect workers’ rights as well as civil and disability rights.

“The city has landmark workers’ rights, civil rights and public safety laws that have historically been unenforced or underenforced,” said Zeke Rediker, a legal policy advisor to Mayor Ed Gainey at a news conference Downtown. “Without enforcement, those rights are hollow. They exist in name only.”

The new Office of Equal Protection will enforce laws such as the 2010 service worker prevailing-wage ordinance and the 2020 paid sick-leave act. The office will include a newly appointed Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator tasked with ensuring the city is in compliance with disability rights laws. It will also house the city’s disruptive properties office, which handles nuisance property matters.

“We want to work with community leaders [and] advocacy groups … to protect Pittsburghers from unfair labor practices, discrimination and public nuisance,” said Rediker, who will lead the office.

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The office was inspired in part by a report issued late last year by the city controller’s office, which urged the mayor to create an office to handle labor rights enforcement and the labor complaint process. Until now, the controller’s office managed those tasks — which Controller Mike Lamb said his staff was not equipped to handle.

“It’s so far outside the mission of this office. And really, I think, it’s harmful in a way because technically our office doesn’t really perform city functions as much as it audits them,” he said.

The new office will fall under the control of the mayor, which will add to its authority, Lamb said.

“When it's coming from the controller's office, it doesn't have the heft it does when it's coming from the mayor's office,” he said.

The city controller's responsibility for labor rights dates back to 2010, when City Council first passed the service worker prevailing-wage ordinance. The ordinance requires private projects subsidized by public dollars to pay competitive wages. Council left enforcement up to the administration of then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, which was “vocally against the bill,” Lamb recalled.

As a result, the controller’s office took on enforcement of that law and later the city’s 2020 paid sick-leave act, which guarantees paid sick time for covered employees. More than 10 years have passed, but Lamb said his office has received fewer than a dozen complaints since then.

He said the low number of reports could be blamed on a lack of education about civil and worker protections in Pittsburgh.

“If you work in Bakery Square, do you know … that you have these rights?” Lamb said, noting that the development was funded with public dollars. “If you are any employee in the city, do you know that you’re entitled to paid time off? I don’t think employers know, and I don’t think employees know it, either.”

Lamb stressed that the new office must do a better job of informing Pittsburgh workers about their rights and available recourse when those rights are violated.

In the meantime, the Gainey administration encouraged the public Friday to report violations of labor, civil and disability rights to the city.

“Tell us when you feel you’re being discriminated against,” Gainey said. “If you’re a convicted felon and you’re not getting the right benefits … call us and tell us.”

The three-person office reorganizes existing positions, and as a result, salaries are covered in the city’s existing budget. But Lamb said the office will need to expand.

“They’re going to have to add resources to that office for it to be effective,” he said, arguing that the city should invest in education efforts and a new complaint process.

He suggested the city follow the lead of the Allegheny County Health Department or the federal Occupational Safety and Health Division by posting information about city laws and rights in workplaces covered by those regulations.

“I think the same kind of thing has to happen here so that every workplace has notice of these [regulations] and these rights,” Lamb said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.