Judge shoots down Allegheny County Council plan to raise minimum wage for county employees
In a legal victory for outgoing Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a judge has agreed with his argument that a County Council-backed measure passed earlier this year to increase the minimum wage for county hourly employees is "legally invalid" and "without force."
In a ruling issued this week, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Daniel D. Regan agreed with Fitzgerald that the wage ordinance passed in June violates the county home rule charter because the charter does not empower County Council to set wages for county employees. The ordinance was set to take effect Jan. 1.
"The legal authority to set wages rests within the Executive Branch" of county government, Regan wrote in the ruling.
The judge also agreed with Fitzgerald's contention that the home rule charter designates executive powers to oversee administration, negotiate contracts and supervise personnel in nearly all county departments and agencies to the county executive and county manager — not County Council. The ordinance also violates labor agreements with county employees because it did not involve collective bargaining with employees, according to the ruling.
In a statement Wednesday, Fitzgerald said the ruling "settles the question about authority within the county’s Home Rule Charter. "
"As I noted when we filed, this is an important legal question that would have a lasting impact upon future executives and councils," he said. "We’re glad to have the question resolved and to make it clear that the will of the voters can’t be circumvented by ordinance when the Home Rule Charter addresses an issue like this one.”
Council President Pat Catena on Thursday said he's reviewed the ruling and expects to meet with his council colleagues to discuss it in an executive session "because it involves litigation" before determining next steps, if any.
He said he expects to hear a gamut of opinions from those who "are adamant that we appeal this," but also from those who don't care as much about the ordinance or are hostile to the idea of the minimum-wage hike itself.
"I need to take the temperature and see where the majority is," he said.
But the matter may be resolved instead through a different action: Incoming County Executive Sara Innamorato on Thursday pledged it will be a "day-one priority" for her administration.
"[Innamorato]has said she supports a living wage for workers, and it will be a day-one priority after she is sworn in next month. She believes raising the floor for all county workers is important, and we can’t stop there," said Abigail Gardner, communications director for Innamorato's transition team.
"This administration will look at pay brackets across all departments and levels to ensure the great people who make the county run are compensated fairly for their commitment to civil service," Gardner said.
Fitzgerald turned to the court in June after sparring with County Council for weeks about the legality of the ordinance, which set a pay floor for all hourly county employees, including full-time, part-time and seasonal workers. It also called for raising the minimum wage to $18 an hour in 2024, and then increasing it by $1 an hour for the next two years.
Proponents of the ordinance said they believe it’s important to pay county employees a fair and competitive wage amid rising costs and a crowded labor market. They also noted that the county has struggled to hire and retain employees in some parts of the government in recent years.
But Fitzgerald consistently opposed the measure, voicing the same arguments he would later present in his lawsuit. After county councilors passed the ordinance in early June, Fitzgerald vetoed it just days later. Council members, in a 10-5 vote, then overrode Fitzgerald’s veto, prompting him to file suit.
In response to the lawsuit, council attorney Frederick Frank argued unsuccessfully that the charter gives the legislative branch the power to change the administrative code, which governs personnel: “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."
WESA's Julia Zenkevich contributed to this report.