Court rejects city law protecting janitors

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A Pittsburgh ordinance designed to protect janitors from losing their jobs in Downtown office buildings violates Home Rule law.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion on the matter Monday.

City Council enacted an ordinance in 2004 governing building complexes with more than 100,000 square feet of floor space. If the owner switches security, janitorial, maintenance, stationary engineering or window-washing contractors, the new firm has to hire the old firm's workers.

If there are too many workers, some can be let go in order of seniority, and any can be fired for cause, otherwise, they can't be fired or laid off for 180 days.

It was passed unanimously in reaction to the 2003 dismissal of nine cleaners at the Centre City Tower Downtown, shortly after the Service Employees International Union negotiated a janitors' contract with building owners Downtown.

However, building managers challenged the law in the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, saying that it violated their right to contract. A judge found in favor of the building managers, as did the Commonwealth Court on appeal in 2007.

Both courts found that state law prohibited municipalities from placing requirements on businesses, and that trumped home rule powers.

But the SEIU, which joined the case on behalf of 1,000 janitorial workers, asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

In a 6-1 decision written by Justice Jane Cutler Greenspan, the court said that home rule law prohibits Pittsburgh from regulating businesses "by determining their 'duties, responsibilities or requirements. "

The ordinance was "plainly a 'requirement' placed upon the new contractor," Justice Greenspan wrote.

"By requiring employers to retain certain employees for approximately half a year, the ordinance exemplifies the very essence of the invasive regulations that [Home Rule] is designed to prevent and, indeed, strictly prohibits."

Gabe Morgan, the director of SEIU Local 32BJ, called the opinion a "terrible legal decision that hurts thousands of workers in Pennsylvania."

"During a recession, it's amazing the Supreme Court would have such a lack of concern for working people across the state," he said. "Pittsburgh was trying to create a stop-gap measure to protect workers."

Justice Debra Todd wrote a seven-page dissenting opinion saying that the result of the majority decision is unreasonable and in direct conflict with the general assembly's intent for home rule municipalities.

"Indeed, after today's decision, municipalities which have adopted home rule now possess less power than non-home rule municipalities," she wrote.

She predicted the opinion will open "a Pandora's Box" of challenges to any number of ordinances regulating business in home-rule municipalities.


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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