Mar 5 10:48 AM

Pennsylvania legislature moves to preempt Philadelphia paid sick leave

Feeling sick? Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter signed a paid leave ordinance, but state legislators want to preempt the law.
Matt Rourke / AP

Last month, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed mandatory paid sick leave into law, promising workers at businesses of ten or more employees at least an hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked. The legislation survived seven years of political wrangling and two prior vetoes by Nutter, but come mid-May, Philadelphia will become the first municipality in Pennsylvania and the 17th in the nation to offer such protections.

But not if the state legislature has anything to say about it.

Nutter signed Philadelphia’s sick leave law on February 12. At that point, conservative  lawmakers in Harrisburg, had already  introduced  a bill that, if passed, would prevent municipalities from establishing paid sick leave laws or any other kind of mandated time off. Unhappy with the latest developments from the state’s largest city, state senators altered the legislation on March 3 to ban any such law passed after January 1, 2015 (the earlier language would have let previously enacted ordinances stand)..

The amendment’s primary sponsor is State Senator John Eichelberger, a conservative Republican from central Pennsylvania and a longstanding opponent of paid sick leave legislation.

“The amendment was introduced because we do not want to allow municipalities to try to sneak in changes to local ordinances before this bill is placed into law,” Senator Eichelberger told Al Jazeera America. “The city of Philadelphia knew that we had a bipartisan effort to get this done and they passed this anyway. We need to ensure we have a system across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that is uniform. We can’t allow municipalities to put a hodgepodge system of local ordinances that would be very difficult for people to understand.”

Labor standards at the municipal level have become increasingly common since the 1990s, as the power of organized labor has steadily retrenched. City minimum wage and paid sick leave bills were first passed in the early years of the 21st century, and conservative lawmakers at the state level quickly reacted. Pennsylvania already preempts municipalities from establishing minimum wages above the state standard, an amendment passed in 2006.

“What we have in this case are instances where local governments have gone beyond their scope of authority,” says Eichelberger. “They only have the power we grant them, nothing more.”

As municipal paid sick leave laws have become increasingly common — a ninth city in New Jersey just enacted one earlier this week — preemptive state-level legislation has been on the rise, too. Currently eleven states have such laws on the books, including Florida, Arizona, Indiana, and many Southern states. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, was among the first to sign such legislation, overriding Milwaukee’s 2008 voter-approved ordinance, one of the first paid sick leave measures ever passed.

“We see [preemption bills] like whack-a-moles, they pop up [when opponents] can’t win at the ballot or in City Hall,” says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a coalition that advocates for paid leave laws. “It’s indicative of a disregard of democracy. They claim it’s to not have a hodgepodge of local bills and to set a uniform standard, but the uniform they want is zero.”

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