Pittsburgh City-County Building. Photo: Google

Pittsburgh City Council lacked authority under state law to mandate that employers provide paid sick leave, attorneys for business groups argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Also in the cross-hairs during a wide-ranging argument session was a city requirement that businesses ramp up their emergency response training.

In addition to lawyers for Pittsburgh defending the measures, attorneys for labor unions backed the city ordinances.

Lawyers representing the business organizations pointed to provisions of the state Home Rule Charter Law that says municipalities cannot regulate businesses or employers without having express authority from statute, but attorneys for the city and the Service Employees International Union contended that health and safety laws allowing second-class cities to develop disaster preparedness plans give Pittsburgh express authority to enact the Paid Sick Days Act and the Safe and Secure Buildings Act.

Jordan Yeager of Curtin & Heefner, who represented Pittsburgh city officials, said that barring the council from enacting the ordinances would be a form of “double-secret pre-emption,” and would “nullify broad grants of authority by imposing a pre-emption regime that doesn’t exist.”

He noted that the Second Class City Code allows municipalities to implement quarantines, monitor the peace and welfare of the public, and to enact laws meant to decrease disease and increase fire safety.

“You can’t make it so second-class, home rule cities are given less authority,” he said.

The arguments came in the consolidated cases of Building Owners and Managers Association of Pittsburgh v. City of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association v. City of Pittsburgh, which deal with the Paid Sick Days Act and the Safe and Secure Buildings Act.

The Paid Sick Days Act, signed into law in August 2015, requires employers to provide employees with a minimum of one hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours they work, and the city’s Safe and Secure Building Act requires “security officers” and “building service employees” who work in large office and retail buildings to receive training on emergency identification, prevention and response from a school certified by the city’s Fire Bureau.

After business organizations, including the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Building Owners and Managers Association of Pittsburgh, challenged the laws, trial courts, and, eventually, the Commonwealth Court blocked them, saying the city did not have the authority.

Much of the city’s argument focused on the meaning of “expressly provided,” with Yeager contending that the previous courts created the improper requirement that the authority had to be specifically provided.

Katchen Locke, general counsel for the SEIU, also drew a distinction between having the law grant express authority and having the law specifically enumerate each issue a municipality can regulate. She further said the legislature expressly granted the authority in a general way, but left it up to municipalities to determine which emergency management procedure would be best for their area.

Justice Max Baer, however, questioned about the principle that the legislature does not want a business to face a different set of rules for every municipality in which it operates.

Locke responded with the example of the minimum wage laws, and said that when the legislature wants uniformity of a certain regulation, it specifically addresses the issue.

“We just need the authority to regulate and we think we’ve found it,” she said.

Del Sole Cavanaugh Stroyd attorney William Stickman, who represented the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, countered that a plain reading of the Home Rule Charter bars municipalities from regulating businesses. Couching impermissible business regulations under the guise of safety, he contended, could lead municipalities to regulate just about all businesses practices.

“So many things are related in an indirect or downstream way to health,” he said.