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Business Is A Pleasure For Grade Schoolers In 'BizTown'


On today's program: Paid family leave in PA gets a committee hearing; county leaders weigh in on a decade of questionable air quality; UPMC may leverage investments in drugmakers into a whole new company; a mentorship program exposes kids to real-life careers; and PWSA is taking a state loan to upgrade its infrastructure. 


Paid family leave would be funded by workers, not employers
(00:00 — 12:11) 

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows 12 weeks of unpaid leave to any American who has worked at least one year at a businesses with 50 employees or more, but a study by the state Department of Labor and Industry shows that only 41 percent of Pennsylvanians are eligible and can afford to take unpaid leave.

The Pennsylvania Senate Labor and Industry Committee this week held a hearing on legislation that would require employers to provide paid leave to workers to care for themselves and family members, maternity and paternity leave and other family obligations.

“We did get a lot of information on both sides of the issue from some very knowledgeable and professional stakeholders,” Republican Sen. Camera Bartolotta, the committee’s chair. Batrolotta says she has not decided how she would vote.

One of those stakeholders favoring paid leave is Heather Arnet, CEO of Pittsburgh’s Women and Girls Foundation.

“Nobody should have to fall into bankruptcy, lose their homes (or) lose their jobs, because they had a new child or their mother broke their hip, or their spouse had to go through chemotherapy” while they take an unpaid leave from work, she says.

Under the legislation, paid leave would be funded through a nearly 0.6 percent deduction from workers’ paychecks. Employers would not be taxed.

Bartolotta says she expects the bill to change as amendments are added, and will then return to committee for further debate.

The decade didn’t end well for air quality in Pittsburgh
(13:33 — 17:33) 

December saw six of the most unhealthy air days the region has experienced in recent memory. Oliver Morrison, environment and health reporter at, talks to county leaders about what it will take to improve air quality. PublicSource is a news partner of The Allegheny Front.

UPMC hopes to found its own pharmaceutical company
(1735 — 21:35)

UPMC’s recent pledge to spend $1 billion on life science innovations through 2024 is expected to support early stage development of medical devices, software, drugs and more nationwide. Executive vice president Jeanne Cunicelli tells The Confluence’s Megan Harris those investments may also be pave the way for a new venture at UPMC: a for-profit pharmaceutical company.

"I believe there's room in the world for a fast-growth, highly flexible pharmaceutical biotechnology company, and there is no reason it can't be in Pittsburgh," she says. "The vision for that would be a sustainable, long-term, big-presence-in-Pittsburgh type of company, with lots of employees and people we recruit."

Hear more from Cunicelli in an upcoming broadcast.

Junior Achievement builds real life lessons for students
(21:37 — 34:07) 

After weeks of interviews for job placement and other preparatory work, students from Claysville Elementary became the first citizens of a new place called “BizTown.” 

On first glance, BizTown looks like a mall, says Dennis Gilfoyle, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania, but it’s a town that requires its citizens—fourth, fifth and sixth graders—to fill the various jobs to keep the town going for the day. 

About 3,000 volunteers corral students from all over Western Pennsylvania, teaching real life skills like opening a checking account, taking out a loan and organizing a business. Some students serve as mock-CEOs of companies like PPG, ALCOSAN, Comcast or FedEx, making deals and talking about products to sell. There’s a town hall and a bank where BizTown citizens deposit paychecks and request loans.

Fran Serenka, program director of education administration at Duquesne University, says these real-life skills are a valuable supplement to a grade schooler’s typical math and English lessons.

Gilfoyle says participation from the 19 participating companies has been enthusiastic. Their leaders were consulted, he said, during the conception process to choose jobs that might be most in demand by the time the kids enter the workforce.

“So when the kids come in, they’re seeing the jobs of the future,” Gilfoyle said. “The jobs that are waiting here for them now.”

State loans PWSA for infrastructure upgrades
(34:10 — 38:46)

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has received a $65 million loan from the state to pay for replacing nearly 15 miles of water mains across the city as well as 2,000 service lines.

Will Pickering, deputy executive director of PWSA. says the agency has prioritized certain water mains based on age, whether they have lead service lines attached and areas where children are likely to live. The money will also be used to replace 688 private lines. 

“The [line from] the curb to the home is typically the responsibility of the homeowner, but if there’s a lead line there, our commitment is that we replace the entire line at no cost to the customer,” Pickering says. 

According to Pickering, the agency would typically get loans with 3 percent interest from the Municipal Bond Market compared to the 1 percent interest state loan. Regardless, customers can still expect rate hikes.  

“We’re going to ask for more contributions from our ratepayers,” Pickering says. “We spread that cost over time so it’s not a lump sum spike in rates.”

90.5 WESA’s Caroline Bourque and Caldwell Holden contributed to this program.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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.
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