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Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald Vetoes Paid Sick Days Act

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has vetoed the Paid Sick Days Act.

The Allegheny County Council passed the bill 10-4 on March 9. The bill requires businesses in Allegheny County to pay their employees paid sick leave, with the exemption of businesses with 25 or fewer employees.

For the policy to take effect, it would have required Fitzgerald's signature.

On the surface, it appears to be a battle over process. Fitzgerald says he favors the plan, but County Council didn't properly vote it into law. But at least one councilmember claims she believes Fitzgerald has a hidden agenda and doesn't really agree with sick leave.

Fitzgerald says he's in favor of the bill, but claims Council was legally obligated to get the Health Department's approval first.

"It's a law that won't hold up in court. It would make people vulnerable. It would give people false hope. We want to do it. We want to do it right," said Fitzgerald.

But County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam says it's just not true.

"Our legislation is sound, has been reviewed by multiple attorneys, has been approved by our county council solicitor, and it's good to go," said Hallam.

Hallam claims Fitzgerald isn't being sincere and he really opposes the law.

"He has been in a position to pass paid sick leave for at least a decade now. He's been the county executive for 10 years, and on Council prior to that," says Hallam.

Not so, says Fitzgerald.

"I've been supportive of the concept. We want to protect not only the workers themselves, but their co-workers so that people aren't going to go to work sick because that's the only way they're going to get paid."

This sets up an unusual battle between the Democratic majority on council and the Democratic county executive. Council has the votes to override the veto.

Meantime, many workers in the county are deciding whether to miss a day's pay or go to work sick.

You can read Fitzgerald's entire veto message below:

"In accordance with Article IV, Section 5 h) of the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter, I hereby return, with my veto, County Council Bill No. 11481-20 (Paid Sick Days Act).

Before outlining my objections to the ordinance, let me start by saying that I fully support paid sick leave. There are many reasons that such a policy makes sense. Quite simply, we don't want people going to work who are contagious. Millions of people in this country, and thousands in our own community, do not have paid sick days to care for their own health. For many, particularly those earning the lowest wage, the decision to stay home or go to work when sick isn't really a decision. In order to pay their bills, they must work – and so they go to work ill, including with contagious illnesses that threaten public health. When you look at how this impacts people of color, the statistics are more staggering. According to the National Paid Sick Days Coalition, more than half (54%) of Latinx workers do not earn a single paid day and 38% of Black workers have no access to paid sick days.

In the alternative, workers with paid sick days are more likely to pursue routine medical appointments and preventive care, because they have the luxury of using paid sick leave to care for themselves. Paid sick time helps workers stay healthy and productive, which benefits everyone.

Establishing a policy of paid sick leave for the county was being explored by my administration prior to the county's first case of COVID. We had dozens of conversations with stakeholders to hear their input. As the coronavirus numbers increased locally, our attention and time had to turn to response. Fortunately, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), addressed the need in the interim, providing paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave. The federal measure allowed us to take a pause in our own efforts while we ramped up testing, preventative efforts, and began to look to distribution of vaccine.

Earlier this year, I asked some of those stakeholders to convene to discuss the ordinance which had been proposed by Council. With the onset of the pandemic locally a year ago, we have seen the vast importance of individuals having the ability to remain at home and care for themselves and their families. That working group indicated its support of a paid sick leave proposal and recognized that phased implementation and an appropriate timeline was necessary.

What wasn't addressed, and what has led to my veto of this ordinance, was the appropriate process through which such policy should be established. County Solicitor Andy Szefi conveyed the Law Department's concerns to you with the process being used for passage of this legislation. Rather than the process followed by Council, this regulation should have been put in place following the provisions of the Local Health Administration Law (LHAL).

More specifically, Allegheny County's authority to impose rules and regulations aimed at public health and safety is set forth in Sections 12010 and 12011 of the LHAL, which read in relevant part as follows:

(T)he county department of health… shall make and enforce such rules and regulations, subject to the approval of the county commissioners or, in the case of a joint-county department of health the joint-county health commission, and institute such programs not inconsistent with the law as may be necessary for the promotion and preservation of the public health.

The board of health shall exercise the rule-making power conferred upon the county department of health by the formulation of rules and regulations for the prevention of disease, for the prevention and removal of conditions which constitute a menace to health, and for the promotion and preservation of the public health generally. Rules and regulations formulated by the board of health shall be submitted to the county commissioners… for approval or rejection. Within thirty (30) days after the receipt of the rules and regulations, the county commissioners… shall give written notice to the secretary of the board of their approval or rejection.

LHAL at Sections 12010(f) and 12011(c) (emphasis added).

This process needs to follow the promulgation of rules and regulations by the Allegheny County Health Department via the Board of Health. Should such rules and regulations be promulgated, they then proceed to County Council in the form of an ordinance as the role of "county commissioners" has been replaced by County Council and the County Executive under the home rule form of government.

As you are all aware, this process was not followed. I commend Council for their interest in enacting this policy and taking steps to protect the residents of this county. We have the same goal but are going about reaching it in different ways. This issue is too important to our community, and particularly to those workers who would have protection in the form of paid sick leave, for it to be done the wrong way. It's simply not fair to give employees in our county false hope that they're protected when the process followed by Council jeopardizes that.

Following Council's vote last week, I spoke directly with Dr. Debra Bogen, Director of the Allegheny County Health Department, to let her know that I would be requesting that the department begin the process to promulgate paid sick leave regulations following the provisions laid out in the LHAL. This morning, I sent a formal letter of request to Dr. Bogen and Dr. Lee Harrison, Chair of the Board of Health, doing exactly that. Even if Council votes to override the veto of the regulated crafted through the wrong process, we will have begun the process to do this the right way.

Following the LHAL means that it will be several more months before Allegheny County has its own paid sick leave regulations. If we want to protect our residents, families, community and public health, we must do this in the right way to ensure that it withstands any legal challenge. For the aforementioned reasons, I have vetoed County Council Bill No. 11481-20."

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