Update (6/28/23): A week after Allegheny County Council overrode his veto on a bill to set a wage floor for county workers, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald filed a lawsuit against the legislative branch, in an effort to block the ordinance that he says violates the Home Rule Charter.
In a 19-page complaint, Fitzgerald and County Solicitor George Janocsko asked the Court of Common Pleas to insert itself into the legislative dispute because the ordinance “raises a fundamental question concerning the proper operation of County government … namely, who possesses the legal authority to set the wages of County employees under the Home Rule Charter — the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch of County Government?”
Council voted 10-5 to pass the ordinance in June, requiring the county to pay all of its workers at least $18 per hour in 2024, $19 per hour in 2025 and $20 per hour starting in 2026.
Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to the council that he vetoed the bill because the charter assigns authority over personnel issues and collective bargaining to the executive. The council’s independent solicitor wrote a contradictory legal memo, contending that the legislative branch does in fact have the power to set wages.
Ten of the 15 council members ultimately voted to pass it, and later to override Fitzgerald’s veto.
Allegheny County Council overrides Fitzgerald, creates pay floor for county workers
Brushing aside the executive branch’s objections, 10 Allegheny County Council members voted Tuesday to override County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s veto and enact a minimum wage for county employees.
The new pay floor, the first of its kind in Allegheny County government, will require the county to pay all workers at least $18 per hour starting in 2024, $19 per hour in 2025 and $20 per hour in 2026. Fitzgerald Tuesday evening did not rule out a legal challenge to the new law.
“Agreeing to work for the county should not necessarily entail taking a vow of poverty,” Council President Pat Catena said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Balancing our budget must never be dependent on forcing our employees to take that vow on a daily basis.”
Voting to push the law through were councilors Olivia Bennett, Jack Betkowski, Tom Duerr, Bethany Hallam, Paul Klein, Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, John Palmiere, Bob Palmosina, Anita Prizio and President Pat Catena. Opposing the measure, as they did when it initially passed on June 6, were Sam DeMarco, Nicholas Futules, Bob Macey and DeWitt Walton. Suzanne Filiaggi missed the June 6 vote and voted against the override Tuesday.
Fitzgerald wrote in a message to council members that his veto was more focused on process and separation of powers than substance. He referenced a legal opinion from the county solicitor that said that the county’s Home Rule Charter gives the power to set wages only to the executive branch, not the legislators. He also claimed that the law is invalid because the executive has sole power to negotiate collective bargaining agreements, and the new wage scheme would contradict some existing agreements.
The council’s own solicitor wrote a legal opinion blessing the bill before it passed, saying that the charter instructs council to legislate an administrative code, which can involve setting wages. The bill also stipulates that it would not supersede any existing collective bargaining agreements, most of which expire at the end of 2024 and all of which expire before 2026, when the $20 minimum wage kicks in.
Some councilors also pointed out that Fitzgerald backed a similar law in 2001 when he was a council member, going as far as to cosponsor a bill that would have established a minimum pay rate for some county workers, adjusted for inflation each year. That bill narrowly failed despite Fitzgerald’s support. Nodding to the 2001 bill, Catena called Fitzgerald a “hypocrite” last week after he vetoed the 2023 bill.
Responding to Catena’s comments Tuesday evening, Fitzgerald said “I’ve always been for the minimum wage” and “politics is politics.” He said it is hard to recall the particulars of the 2001 bill and how it avoided violating the charter as he says the 2023 bill does.
“As county executive, I established a $15 an hour base wage for our full-time county workers and have since committed to increase that full-time base wage to $18 an hour; a wage that will take effect in 2024,” Fitzgerald added in a press release issued shortly after the override vote.
Aside from his procedural objections, Fitzgerald disagreed with council’s decision to include seasonal workers in the pay hike. He said giving high school- and college-age workers the same raise as full-time workers would cause a ripple effect of raises, adding to the financial burden on the taxpayer.
Two council members who voted to kill the legislation expressed similar concerns at a previous meeting. Republican Sam DeMarco said the move could cause “wage compression,” driving up wages for workers that aren’t specifically targeted. Democrat Nicholas Futules said he sees too much risk in scheduling raises years in advance.
Macey said during Tuesday’s meeting, “When I wasn’t making enough money, I went out and got a job. I had three jobs. … If you’re not satisfied here, maybe you need to move on. I don’t know.”
With his veto overridden, Fitzgerald’s only recourse may be waging a lawsuit against the legislative branch in the final months of his 12 years in office.
Fitzgerald said Tuesday he could “potentially” look at a lawsuit against the minimum wage bill, but would not go into further detail.
Such a lawsuit could drag on into 2024, when a new executive would be sworn in and decide whether to take up Fitzgerald’s fight.
PublicSource reported earlier this month that women and Black employees hold disproportionate shares of the county jobs that pay less than $20 per hour.
This marks the second time in less than a year council has overridden Fitzgerald’s veto. It did so last summer to enact a ban on fracking in county parks.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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