Update (6/13/23): County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vetoed county council’s bill to raise the wage floor for county employees Tuesday, saying the measure would violate the county’s Home Rule Charter and that big raises for seasonal workers would cause financial problems for the county.
Minutes later, Council President Pat Catena told PublicSource he expects to schedule a vote to override the veto for June 20.
“Ultimately, this veto is about the separation of powers set up in the county’s Home Rule Charter,” Fitzgerald wrote in letter to council. “When this government was set up and approved by the voters, it did not give the legislative body the authority to set pay rates.”
Council and its solicitor have taken a conflicting view that the charter does in fact grant them the power to set wages.
While Fitzgerald wrote in the letter that his veto “does not represent a disagreement with the need to pay our employees a living wage,” he said he does not agree that high school- and college-aged workers at swimming pools and golf courses should be raised to $18 or $20 per hour, and that doing so would cause a ripple effect of costs for the county.
Catena called the executive a “hypocrite,” citing Fitzgerald’s support, when he was a council member, for 2001 legislation that would have raised minimum pay for some county workers.
County Council passed the bill last week with a 10-4 vote. It would take 10 votes to override Fitzgerald’s veto, meaning only one member who voted in favor last week would need to switch sides to sink the bill. Council has 30 days to hold an override vote, which could take place during scheduled meetings June 20 or July 5.
Pay raise would boost women, Black employees of Allegheny County — unless it’s vetoed
An Allegheny County Council bill could raise the pay of hundreds of county employees, eventually increasing the minimum pay for its workers to $20 per hour and lifting compensation for nursing assistants, clerks, child services caseworkers and others. But County Executive Rich Fitzgerald could veto the pay hike due to its cost.
More than a fifth of Allegheny County’s 5,600 full-time employees made less than $20 per hour (or the equivalent $41,600 salary) in 2022, according to county payroll data, which PublicSource reviews and details annually. That group, 1,175 individuals in 2022, includes a higher proportion of women and people of color than the county’s workforce overall. And those workers who earned less than $20 per hour left their jobs at a higher rate than other county workers last year while key agencies struggled to retain and hire staff.
The bill would gradually raise minimum pay, only for county employees, to $20 per hour by 2026. The statewide minimum wage is $7.25. Whether the county threshold will become law is not yet clear. Council could overcome a Fitzgerald veto with a supermajority vote and, barring that, a new executive is coming in January who could champion the measure.
Fitzgerald’s spokesperson declined to comment on the executive’s plans for the legislation last week.
“If [Fitzgerald] wants to go down swinging against county employees, that is a path that he can choose to take,” said the bill’s sponsor, Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, a frequent foil of Fitzgerald. “We’re prepared to override a veto. … These are people who are struggling as it is. We need to give them an opportunity to focus on these important jobs without needing a second job or a gig job.”
Turnover: high in low-wage service jobs
Turnover is a constant in county government, but last year more people left county jobs (844) than were hired (698). Those who left had a median salary of about $47,500, which was about $5,200 less than the county’s overall median salary last year.
Roughly 20% of county workers who earned less than the proposed $41,600 floor left their jobs last year, compared to just 13% of county workers who earned more.
A total of 142 people left jobs at the county-run Kane assisted living homes last year, compared to just 31 hires during that time. The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS] saw 155 departures and 57 new hires.
Last year began with 276 caseworkers in ACDHS’ Division of Children, Youth and Families [CYF]. Sixty-four of them left and 12 were added. And that division had as many as 100 vacancies in September, according to a WESA report. Twenty of those who left in 2022 earned less than $41,600 per year.
County spokesperson Amie Downs said increased turnover at the Kane Centers is in line with industry-wide difficulties since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that turnover among CYF caseworkers was up in 2021 and 2022 but has been a net positive so far in 2023.
Brian Englert, who leads the union representing county jail correctional officers, said at Tuesday’s council meeting that raising wages could help fill dozens of medical staff vacancies at the jail. “I sit at a jail that struggles every day to have medical assistance to clear people at the door to be brought into the jail,” Englert said, referencing a posted $17.15 hourly rate for medical assistants. “We’re not getting anybody at that rate because they can get more at the hospital.”
Disparities: least male, least white departments paid less
Raising minimum pay for county workers would disproportionately impact women and Black employees, many of whom work as nursing assistants in the county’s nursing homes, assistants in ACDHS and the Public Defender’s office, and administrative workers who keep the gears of government turning in areas ranging from elections to property assessments.
Staffing at the Kane Centers and within ACDHS stood out from other departments in three ways: Women were large majorities, Black employees made up more than one-quarter of their rosters, and they were most reliant on workers earning less than $20 an hour.
“I would just like to remind council that if … we want people to have a fair shot at being able to live in this county and not put that burden on the backs of Black women, then we should be voting in favor of this,” said Councilwoman Liv Bennett, the only Black woman on council, during Tuesday’s discussion of the wage increase.
The cost: millions per year, rising gradually
Fitzgerald’s opposition to the pay increase legislation, he said, is rooted in his aversion to raising taxes. He claimed in a written statement that the legislation would cost taxpayers $30 million, though it’s not clear over how many years or how that figure was calculated.
He said in a May 10 press release that Hallam’s bill would “require the largest tax increase in the history of this government.”
Asked how they arrived at the $30 million estimate, Downs said that it “is a moderate estimate put together by our Budget Department based on the language of the legislation.”
Council President Pat Catena, in an apparent response to Fitzgerald during Tuesday’s meeting, said, “If we can’t figure out a way to balance a budget of that [$1 billion] size with our existing revenues without asking our county employees to subsidize it by making less money than they could be making elsewhere, then our budgeting skills leave a lot to be desired.”
An analysis provided by County Council states that enacting the bill would cost annually about $2.8 million for salaried and hourly workers in 2026, when the wage floor would reach $20 an hour, plus anywhere from $1.1 million to $4.5 million for seasonal workers depending on how many hours they work in a given year.
The council budget staff analysis asserts that there are 74 salaried employees whose pay would be boosted by the third year of the legislation, along with 690 hourly workers and 335 seasonal, temporary or part-time workers.
Also at issue are dueling legal opinions about whether the County Council even has the authority to set a minimum wage for county employees. The county solicitor, who serves the executive branch, wrote in an opinion that the county’s Home Rule Charter gives the executive discretion over employment matters. County Council’s solicitor wrote in a separate opinion that since the charter instructs the council to provide a plan for a personnel system, it grants it the power to set wages.
Multiple lawmakers said Tuesday that Fitzgerald appeared to endorse council’s authority to set county employee wages when he was a councilor in the 2000s. He co-sponsored a bill in 2001 that would have set a minimum wage for employees of at least $9.12 per hour, adjusted for inflation each year. The bill never passed.
“Clearly the shoe is now on the other foot,” Catena said of Fitzgerald.
Police earn most, court records workers least
The county workforce is slightly more white and male than the county population; 80% of workers were white to 79% of residents, 51% of workers are male to 49% of residents.
The median salary — excluding seasonal workers, part-time workers and interns — is $52,701. White employees earned more than that (median salary $54,049) and Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic and multiracial employees earned a median salary between $3,000 and $6,000 less than the overall median. Men earned a median salary $6,000 higher than that of women.
The County Police was the department with the highest median salary ($100,516) and the Department of Court Records the lowest ($40,071).
The county paid $34.9 million in overtime costs in 2022, up from $29 million in each of 2021 and 2020; 19% went to Kane Centers employees and 18% went to the Department of Emergency Management, largely to 911 dispatchers. PublicSource has reported staffing shortages in the 911 center in recent years.
The highest salaried county employee last year was Health Department Director Debra Bogen ($269,250), who resigned at the end of the year to become the state’s secretary of health. The next highest were County Manager William McKain ($235,750) who resigned in early 2023, and Medical Examiner Karl Williams ($235,500). County Executive Rich Fitzgerald ($142,339) had the 22nd-highest salary.
Of 358 county employees who earned $100,000 or more, 92% were white and 75% were men. Almost half worked for county police and 42 in the district attorney’s office. This group is notably larger than in 2021, when 198 employees earned six-figure salaries.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Lucas Dufalla.
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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.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.