Allegheny County Council will consider a proposal to grant three to five paid sick days a year to most people who work in the county full-time. The Democrats who plan to introduce the legislation Tuesday say the coronavirus pandemic underscores the need for the policy.
The bill, sponsored by councilors Pat Catena, Bethany Hallam, and Anita Prizio, notes that paid sick leave helps to prevent employees from spreading illnesses to other people at work. But Hallam added in an interview that the county should adopt the safeguard for ordinary times, too.
“One of the major missing pieces to a healthy society is people having the ability to stay home from work when they’re sick,” she said.
But Republican councilor Sam DeMarco criticized the bill as potentially harming firms that are already struggling due to the economic shutdown.
"So why are we trying to pile this on top of everything that they're dealing with right now? This is going to decimate these small businesses,” he said.
DeMarco also noted that Congress passed a law in March that grants many workers weeks of paid sick time during the pandemic.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act applies to private businesses with fewer than 500 workers and certain public sector employers, and it gives employers tax credits for covering leave expenses.
Under the federal statute, employees can receive up to two weeks of paid time off if they are quarantined due to COVID-19. Workers are also eligible for up to twelve weeks of paid leave if they can’t work because they must care for a child.
Hallam said the county proposal would guarantee no more than one week of leave in order to conform with the city of Pittsburgh’s paid sick time law. Such uniformity, she said, would make it easier for employers in Pittsburgh to comply with both county and city rules.
The Pittsburgh ordinance took effect in March, after surviving a legal challenge at the state Supreme Court last summer. As the county council bill proposes, the city statute does not apply to independent contractors, state and federal workers, construction union members covered by a collective bargaining unit, or seasonal employees.
It similarly orders companies with 15 or more workers to provide at least five paid sick days a year. Smaller organizations need to provide at least three days a year.
Hallam said she would welcome proposals to increase sick time requirements in both jurisdictions.
“I’m open and hopeful that down the line, we’ll amend this [county council bill] and work with the city to do the same with theirs, [and] that we will actually let people accrue more sick time than the current legislation will allow for,” Hallam said.
She noted that public health experts advise people who have contracted the coronavirus, or come into contact with someone who has, to self-quarantine for 14 days. But she added, “Even without COVID-19, there [are] other illnesses that people contract where they need more than one week of staying at home and staying away from people, stay quarantined.”
DeMarco worries that such talk could have damaging long-term consequences.
“I’m concerned about how any businesses, whether they be small, medium, or large, are going to start looking at Allegheny County if they believe that we’re becoming an activist government,” he said.