Pittsburgh can require private employers to provide paid sick leave, Pa. Supreme Court rules

By: - July 17, 2019 2:26 pm

Image via Pittsburgh United

In a ruling that could have statewide implications, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Pittsburgh can require private employers to provide paid sick leave.

The ruling represents a major victory for the city and the union that represents service employees.

“Guaranteeing paid sick leave is a huge win for those who live and work in Pittsburgh,” Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement. “As I’ve long said, people should not be forced into the making the tough decision between staying home sick and missing a day’s pay, or coming in to work and spreading infection. I want to thank the Supreme Court for affirming Pittsburgh’s statutory powers to do what’s best for our people.”

In 2015, Pittsburgh City Council passed an ordinance requiring many private employers to provide paid sick days. The law had the backing of the Service Employees International Union, which claimed in a court filing that “77 percent of the City’s service workers, especially food service workers and healthcare workers, lack access to paid sick time.”

Just one month after the bill passed, the city was sued by the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association and local businesses including Church Brew Works and Modern Cafe.

The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas overturned the law in December 2015, a ruling affirmed by the Commonwealth Court in May 2017. Both courts rejected the argument that Pittsburgh has the right to mandate paid sick leave under its home rule charter and the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law.

“The power to achieve that goal rests with our General Assembly … through statewide legislation addressing paid sick leave or, alternatively, through legislation vesting authority to do so in local municipalities,” Commonwealth Court Judge Michael H. Wojcik wrote.

A 2009 ruling by the state Supreme Court has — until this moment — stymied paid sick leave and similar legislative efforts in the past. That case, brought by the Building Owners and Managers Association of Pittsburgh, centered on a law requiring contractors to temporarily retain employees during a city service contract change.

A majority of justices ruled against Pittsburgh, citing the state law that allows municipalities to draft their own home rule charters. That law says those jurisdictions cannot “determine duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has lost four members — two Republicans and two Democrats — since that 2009 ruling. Three of those justices were replaced by Democrats, giving the court its current 5-2 party split.

Pittsburgh’s paid sick leave law was upheld Wednesday by a 4-3 majority.

“What constitutes an express grant of authority to ‘determine duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers’ is a vexing question,” Justice David N. Wecht wrote for the majority in Wednesday’s ruling. “If we interpret the word ‘express’ too stringently, virtually any incidental burden upon employers arising from a local ordinance will be barred. If we interpret it too broadly, we subvert the General Assembly’s manifest intent to limit the burdens that a home-rule municipality can impose upon businesses. Thus, we must find a middle ground.”

The four justices found that it is within Pittsburgh’s “express statutory authority to legislate in furtherance of disease control and prevention.”

Corey O’Connor, the Pittsburgh city council member who sponsored the legislation, called the ruling a win for Pittsburgh, other municipalities, and workers.

“It’s been a while,” he quipped of the four years it took to get a final decision.

“This is now a new standard in our state,” O’Connor said. “Our municipalities now won’t be scared to take up issues.”

Wednesday’s ruling doesn’t necessarily mean Pittsburgh’s paid sick leave law is safe.

State lawmakers have, in the past, introduced measures that would preempt municipalities from enacting laws like paid sick leave. One of those bills, introduced by state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, states “a municipality may not in any manner regulate employer policies or practices or enforce any mandate regarding employer policies or practices.”

“If Pittsburgh and Philly want to be San Francisco, they can just go to San Francisco,” Grove said Wednesday in reaction to the ruling.

The Republican added that he expects the decision will spur action not only on preemption legislation but also judicial reforms. Top of the list would be creating districts for appeals’ judges, who are currently elected in statewide contests.

A bill from Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, to do just that is awaiting final approval in the Republican-controlled House. The Legislature returns from its summer recess in September.

Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed reporting. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.