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Pittsburgh City Council proposal would force city businesses to provide paid sick days 

The law is similar to one passed in Philadelphia earlier this year

Mary Jo Heidkamp has been a cashier for nearly two decades. Just after the New Year, she got bronchitis and missed three days of work.

"I did have a doctor's excuse, but I still didn't get paid for those three days," says Heidkamp, who's been working at a Brighton Heights grocery store since 2004. She says she didn't feel better on the fourth day, "but I went in anyway."

"That really affected me, I was short a couple days in the paycheck," says Heidkamp, who works between 35-40 hours per week at $11.65 an hour. "I own a home, and I pay bills and taxes. Losing days of work without pay just doesn't cut it for me on the little bit I make."

A bill introduced by Pittsburgh City Council last week would potentially give people like Heidkamp, who has been advocating for the measure, up to nine days of accrued sick time. Similar legislation passed in Philadelphia earlier this year. However, trade groups and associations representing small businesses say that good companies already offer sick time and that a one-size-fits-all law would be costly to business owners and difficult to navigate on a city-by-city basis.

"Employers should take care of their employees. If an employer doesn't, people should go to work for someone who's going to take care of them," says Jeff Cohen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

In the city's bill, at companies with 15 or more employees, workers would accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, capped at 72 hours, or nine days. At companies with fewer than 15 employees, sick time would be capped at 40 hours, or five days. Accrual of sick time wouldn't go into effect until 90 days after a worker's hire date, and a doctor's note would be required for three consecutive days missed.

"It's for all workers [in the city], but there's a lot of people who already have this [paid sick time]," says City Councilor Corey O'Connor, who introduced the bill last week. "So really [we're] trying to fight for people that don't. ... Most service employees do not."

Because of a 2009 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case that decided that a city could not regulate the affairs of private businesses, O'Connor is approaching the legislation from a public-health perspective.

"You don't want an employee coming in and infecting others," O'Connor says.

O'Connor and supporters cite a 2013 UPMC study that concludes that "universal access to paid sick days would reduce flu cases" by 6 percent or more.

Tony Helfer, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23, which represents 1,500 workers within city limits, including Heidkamp, says that even if workers left one job for another with better sick-time policies, the public-health problem still wouldn't be solved.

"That problem remains," he says. "You're [the customer] standing at deli and asking for pound of lunch meat, and the [employee] is sneezing and wiping their nose on their arm. Is that what you want?"

A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization in New York, advised on Pittsburgh's legislation and has done so in several places, including San Francisco and Connecticut.

"The most important thing in terms of Pittsburgh's power to do this is public health," says Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance.

Leiwant says studies show that businesses in San Francisco and Connecticut have adapted to the laws. According to a 2008 analysis by the Institute for Women's Policy and Research, one year after the law's implementation, job growth in San Francisco was unaffected. Also, the city reported that both the Chamber of Commerce and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association reported receiving very few employer complaints or concerns regarding the ordinance.

A 2011 National Partnership for Women and Families analysis found that sick days resulted in less employee turnover, and thus, less hiring and training costs; and the analysis also stated that sick workers, who aren't as productive, cost the national economy $160 billion per year.

But organizations representing area businesses aren't buying it.

"Let's assume you have 20 people in your company and you give them all nine days per year based on this legislation," Cohen says. "That's 72 hours per employee; that's 1,440 hours. Let's say each person made $12 an hour; that could cost a small company between $25,000-30,000."

"How do you even monitor this thing?" Cohen asks. "They're assuming people are coming to work sick. I don't know how they assume that. If this was a state or federal mandate, we'd abide by it because everyone would be on same playing field."

The PA Chamber of Business and Industry cites two 2013 studies from the Washington, D.C.-based Employment Policies Institute, which surveyed nearly 200 employers in both Connecticut and Seattle. The studies found that overwhelmingly, employers said illness was not a serious issue in the workplace. While the Seattle study did not conclude whether the policy increased the cost of running a business, 47 percent of Connecticut employers reported taking actions to pay for the mandate, including raising consumer prices or cutting employee benefits.

Several bills on the issue have been introduced on the state level. Senate Bill 333, which passed the senate and needs a house vote, would prevent any municipal paid-sick-time laws passed after January 2015. The two-page bill is in direct response to Philadelphia's measure.

"There's two issues here. Whether we allow municipalities on their own to do what they want, [which] would be a very complicated environment to do business," says state Sen. John Eichelberger, a Republican from Blair County. "And then the other debate [is] whether we should have mandatory paid-leave law on the books, and my belief is that the private sector works this out themselves."

Meanwhile, House Bill 624 would mandate accrued sick time across the state.

"Don't we wish that people who have a bad time at a job could just leave and get another one?" says state Rep. Maria Donatucci, a Philadelphia Democrat who introduced the bill. "People have families to support, people have mortgages, people are paying their kids' tuitions, all of that doesn't stop 'cause you're sick a week."

Heidkamp agrees: "Why should I do that? I'm 56 years old. I like my job, but I think my company, or any company for that matter that works with food, could at least provide sick days."

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