Pennsylvania Plaintiffs Launch Successful Attack on Pittsburgh’s Local Paid Sick Leave

The proliferation of paid sick leave (PSL) laws has been well-documented in the last few years.  California’s PSL statute has received particular attention in this blog, but Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oregon have also adopted similar state-wide legislation.  And it is not just the states that are rolling out requirements for PSL; dozens of cities and counties have also adopted PSL ordinances (oftentimes in states that already have similar laws in place).  Major municipal adopters include New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Newark, and Philadelphia.

The proliferation of PSL ordinances at the municipality level, however, has been the subject of some criticism on the basis that cities and counties are overstepping their role in regulating employers.  This was the issue in a recent attack on a PSL ordinance passed by Pittsburgh, PA, in August 2015.  That ordinance provided that all private employers in Pittsburgh had to provide their employees with one hour of PSL for every 35 hours worked, and that employees would begin earning PSL as soon as their employment began.  The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Hospitality Association, however, filed a lawsuit in September 2015, claiming that “[i]n attempting to provide a one-size-fits-all mandate to every business in the city regarding sick leave, the city of Pittsburgh has not only ignored the individual business realities facing employers, but has violated the statutory limits on its power.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit relied on Pennsylvania’s Home Rule Charter and Optional Laws Plan.  53 Pa.C.S. §§ 2901, et seq.  That statute authorizes to most Pennsylvania municipalities increased freedom in self-governance, but with boundaries.  The authorized autonomy is limited and subject to a number of restrictions, including that “a municipality which adopts a home rule charter shall not determine duties, responsibilities, or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers.”  53 Pa.C.S. § 2962(f).  The plaintiff argued that this provision invalidates the ordinance adopted by the city council.

On December 21, 2015, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas overturned Pittsburgh’s PSL regime.  Judge Joseph James agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the PSL ordinance directly attempted to regulate employers, and there were no applicable exceptions to the Home Rule Charter and Optional Laws Plan.

This case is not the first instance of a PSL statute being overturned—Milwaukee’s PSL ordinance was successfully repealed in June 2011 through a variety of legal and legislative machinations.  However, it could very well mark the first instance of a lawsuit successfully challenging a PSL statute without a parallel legislative effort.

Though the Pittsburgh PSL coup was based on unique circumstances, it is an important benchmark in the continuing conflict over PSL policies—particularly in light of recent similar attempts to invalidate PSL regimes in Seattle and Trenton.  As PSL statutes continue to proliferate, it seems likely that such individualized, ad hoc invalidation attempts will continue.