Policy requires employers in city to provide benefit
August 3, 2015 11:15 PM
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers show their support after Pittsburgh City Council voted to approve a paid sick leave ordinance.
Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Darlene Harris abstained from a vote to approve a paid sick leave ordinance.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers cheer after Pittsburgh City Council members voted to approve a the ordinance.
By Robert Zullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Brushing aside concerns about the speed of the legislation and the limits of its own authority, Pittsburgh City Council overwhelmingly approved a law Monday that will require all employers within the city borders to provide paid sick leave, part of a nationwide push to extend the benefit to millions who lack it.
Council members and supporters, including Pittsburgh United, a coalition of unions, community organizations and advocacy groups, heralded the law as a just, common-sense measure. They say it will, at a minimal cost to employers, prevent an estimated 50,000 workers in the city who lack paid sick leave from having to choose between going work ill or sending their child to school sick and losing a day’s pay.
Councilman Corey O’Connor, who steered the legislation from introduction to passage in less than a month, framed it as a public health measure and a “good, balanced bill” that weighed the concerns of business against the needs of workers.
“There’s nothing in the city charter that talks about the morality of doing what’s right for residents,” Mr. O’Connor said, responding to assertions from a colleague that the council had no authority to impose the requirement.
The law, which Mayor Bill Peduto intends to sign, allows workers at businesses that employ 15 or more people to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours worked to a maximum of 40 hours. That leave can be used for an employee illness or injury or that of a family member.
For businesses with fewer than 15 employees, workers can accrue up to 24 hours of paid sick time, though small businesses will get a year to comply with law. In that first year, employees of those businesses will be eligible to accrue 24 hours of unpaid sick time.
Employers are not required to compensate workers for unused sick time or pay for lost tips for waiter and bartenders as a result of taking sick leave. Seasonal employees, employers who already offer paid leave commensurate with the ordinance and employees covered by collective bargaining agreements that provide equivalent benefits are exempt from the law, which takes effect 90 days after the city posts notice and regulations for compliance. Also exempt are the federal and state governments.
Councilwoman Darlene Harris said she sought an opinion from the city solicitor’s office and was told the ordinance runs afoul of the Home Rule Charter and leaves the city vulnerable to a legal challenge.
Under state law, municipalities with home-rule charters “shall not determine duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses.” That provision that was triggered in 2006, when a council law extending protections to employees of service companies that lose contracts, such as janitors, was struck down by a local judge in a decision that was upheld by the state Supreme Court three years later.
“If this is passed and successfully challenged in court, it’s going to be a costly mistake that the taxpayers will have to fund,” said Mrs. Harris, who abstained from two votes on the law Monday.
Mrs. Harris also said the law’s grounding in protecting public health, based on the state Disease Prevention and Control Law, is flawed, since the law grants powers only to “municipalities with boards and departments of health.” Pittsburgh has ceded those responsibilities to the Allegheny County Health Department.
Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who asked last week, to no avail, for an exemption for small businesses, was the lone no vote, noting he is “the product of a small family-owned business,” Lavelle Real Estate in the Hill District. Mr. Lavelle wrote in a letter to his colleagues that he was “highly concerned” that the bill would hamper the development of small business and “our effort to make this city the most livable for all.”
Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mr. Peduto, confirmed that the city solicitor had weighed in on the law but would not provide the specifics of the review. Asked if the mayor had concerns about the city inviting litigation, he said it would depend “on how the bill is implemented.”
The law puts the city controller’s office or “a department or entity designated by the Office of the Mayor” in charge of enforcement.
“It’s a good idea,” Mr. McNulty said. “He favors the concept and now we have to get to work on implementing it.”
Kevin Joyce, owner of The Carlton restaurant Downtown, said it was disturbing that the legislation, backed by labor "special interests," was able to travel from inception to passage so rapidly.
“I don’t think it’s government’s role, particularly local government, to be in the position of dictating benefits,” he said. “We think it will be found illegal. … You can be pretty sure somebody will file some legal action.”
That somebody could be the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, which represents restaurants and hotels across the state.
“It’s absolutely something we are going to look at closely and aggressively,” said Melissa Bova, the association’s director of government affairs. “We firmly believe it’s against the Home Rule Charter.”
The Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, the Northside/ Northshore Chamber of Commerce and other business owners have also registered opposition.
And the restaurant and lodging association has also backed a bill introduced by state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, after Philadelphia passed its own sick leave legislation earlier this year. Mr. Eichelberger’s law, languishing in committee, would ban municipalities from enacting similar laws.
In an interview last month, Mr. Eichelberger said such laws create a patchwork of regulation for businesses to navigate.
“I really don’t think there’s any place for municipal government to do this,” he said. “They really only have the authority to do what we tell them they can do.”
Pittsburgh becomes the 19th city in the nation, along with four states and one county, to enact paid-sick leave laws since San Francisco became the first in the country in 2006.
“We are really moving a national agenda forward, make no mistake, that focuses on compassion, that focuses on the little guy” said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak. “If we wait for a federal national sick days law to pass, we’ll be waiting decades. ... We’re not going to sit around to wait for Harrisburg to tell us what we can and cannot do as a city.”
Robert Zullo: email@example.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo.
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