Members of Allegheny County Council blocked attempts Wednesday to scale back a proposed paid sick leave mandate. But with more amendments yet to be debated, council’s health and human services committee must meet again before returning the bill for a full council vote.
The legislation would require companies with 15 or more employees to provide at least five paid sick days a year to those who work full-time. Workers at smaller businesses could accrue up to three sick days annually. The legislation does not cover independent contractors, state and federal workers, construction union members covered by a collective bargaining unit, or seasonal employees.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Democrat Bob Macey unsuccessfully proposed that the bill exempt firms with 50 or fewer workers. He said that modification would match employee thresholds found in some state and federal policies, and that it would avoid compounding the strain businesses have faced due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been tough enough on the businesses at this point. I wouldn’t want them to be hampered or harmed any more financially,” Macey said.
His argument did not win over the committee, however, and the panel rejected the amendment in 4-3 vote. Democrats Liv Bennett, Tom Duerr, Anite Prizio, and Paul Zavarella opposed the measure, while Republicans Tom Baker and Cindy Kirk joined Macey in supporting it.
Bennett, Duerr, Prizio, and Zavarella also rejected an amendment that would further limit the types of workers who would qualify for paid sick time protections. Kirk, the committee’s chair, proposed expanding the list of workers who would not be covered by the policy to include adjunct professors, employees hired for a term of less than six months, interns, pool employees, and unionized employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
She said that legally, the measure should not dictate working conditions that are subject to union negotiation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not question a provision in the city of Pittsburgh’s sick leave law, which does not exclude all unionized employees and which withstood a legal challenge at the state’s high court in 2019. But Kirk said the lawsuit did not specifically challenge how the city chose to define employees in its ordinance. She noted, too, that her proposal mirrored the language the city of Philadelphia uses to define employees in its paid sick leave law.
She said the amendment would address the concerns of some school district superintendents who fear substitute teachers would be eligible for paid sick leave. The administrators worried that it would be too burdensome to accommodate substitutes who work in different districts on a daily basis, Kirk said. And she said the same concern applies to other temporary workers such as nurses employed by agencies that assign them to work at different locations from day to day.
Although there was little debate before the committee voted down the amendment, Prizio questioned why Kirk's amendment would bar adjunct professors from being guaranteed sick leave benefits. While Kirk said her experience as an adjunct at times amounted to a once-a-semester commitment, Prizio noted that “adjunct professors sometimes are [at work] all the time.”
Prizio also opposed an amendment introduced by Kirk to prevent workers from using sick time to care for a domestic partner, or the relative of a domestic partner. Kirk said that the legalization of gay marriage obviated the need for such protections, but Bennett noted that some constituents do not believe in marriage, and the amendment could out employees who prefer to keep their relationship status private. The amendment was defeated in a unanimous vote, with Kirk saying that she would honor the consensus of other committee members.
The panel has yet to discuss other provisions, so it will need to meet at least once more before sending the bill back to the full council for a vote.
One of the remaining amendments would delay implementation of the sick leave policy until more than a year after Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration expires.
That change might help to win the support of councilors like Republican Sam DeMarco, who has previously criticized the sick days bill.
On Wednesday, he said, “In my mind, there’s no doubt that we need to do something in regard to paid sick leave for folks that are out there.” But he added, “I think it’s important that we understand what it is we’re putting in place, what the costs … we’re putting on [employers] are, and … when we’re looking for something to take effect considering that we’re still under COVID."