Does Pittsburgh have the right to mandate paid sick leave? The Pa. Supreme Court will decide.

Attorneys for the city argued that paid sick leave is a public health matter.

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Courtesy Pittsburgh United

Does Pittsburgh have the right to mandate paid sick leave? That’s the issue now before the Pa. Supreme Court.

The question boils down to how much leeway Pennsylvania municipalities that adopt a home rule charter have to regulate the actions of private businesses.

Lawyers for Pittsburgh and a union that represents service employees argued Tuesday that paid sick leave is a public health matter that can be locally legislated under a state law that seeks to prevent the spread of diseases.

That’s not the case, lawyers representing the restaurant industry and local businesses countered. State law that allows municipalities to draft their own home rule charters prohibits those jurisdictions from “[determining] duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers.”

That clause has stymied paid sick leave and similar legislative efforts in the past. But is there an exception to be made in this case?

‘The whole purpose of government’

All Pennsylvania municipalities except Philadelphia are strictly limited in how they can regulate private businesses. But state law does provide an exception for “statutes which are applicable in every part of this Commonwealth.”

Enter the Disease Prevention and Control Law, which allows municipalities to enact ordinances that relate to the stated goal.

Jordan Yeager, an attorney representing Pittsburgh, told the justices Tuesday that any ambiguity in the home rule law needs to favor municipalities’ ability to create rules, especially for public safety. He added that paid sick leave is a way to prevent the spread of contagious disease.

“The whole purpose of government is to protect public safety,” Yeager said.

Lawyers representing the restaurant industry conceded that the state’s home rule law does provide exceptions to allow for the regulation of private businesses, but said that Pittsburgh’s argument is too broad.

Pittsburgh City Council cited the Disease Prevention law when it passed its paid sick leave ordinance in 2015. 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 the home rule and disease prevention laws.

“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.

The seven Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments Tuesday for both the paid sick leave law as well as the city’s Safe and Secure Building Act, which would require some employees in private buildings to do emergency response training.

With oral arguments done and Pittsburgh’s appeals exhausted, both sides will now wait for a final ruling.