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Labor Report

As Toxic Schools Crisis Grows, State and Local Officials Ramp Up Funding, Remediation Efforts

Governor Tom Wolf, the Philadelphia school board, and the city’s school principals all took action to respond to a growing statewide toxic schools crisis.

On January 29, the governor announced a proposal to invest up to $1 billion in state redevelopment grants to remove toxins from Pennsylvania’s school buildings. One day later, Philadelphia principals and other administrators rallied at their Teamsters Local 502/CASA union hall to demand that the school district move swiftly to test for and remediate asbestos and other threats in its buildings.

Hours after the rally, the Philadelphia Board of Education voted to spend at least $14 million over the next three years on remediation projects. The district operates more than 200 schools, about 80% were built before the late 1970s when stringent asbestos restrictions in construction took effect.

Senator Tartaglione joined many of her legislative colleagues at the governor’s office for his announcement. Wolf proposes to expand the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) so that school districts may apply for grants to remediate asbestos and lead. He proposed or identified additional funding streams that could add up to an investment of more than $1.1 billion to address toxins in schools, child daycare centers, homes, and public water systems.

“This is a timely and meaningful commitment to Pennsylvania’s students and educators, a far-reaching and comprehensive investment in our aging school buildings,” Senator Tartaglione said of the RACP proposal.  “There is an urgent need for these resources because with every week, every day, and every hour that passes, countless individuals may be exposed to undetected toxic substances.”

The crisis is affecting schools beyond Philadelphia and throughout the state. Among 16 schools operated by the Scranton School District, 12 reportedly contain asbestos. The district is evaluating more than 200 areas in those facilities where asbestos remains to determine if the substance is an immediate threat to building occupants.

Senator Tartaglione also joined Teamsters Local 502 leaders for their January 30 rally. In a subsequent letter to the district and the school board, Local 502 President Robin Cooper wrote: “It is unacceptable and horrifying for any student or staff to be exposed to these extremely toxic hazards.”

Tartaglione, Governor Renew Call for $15 Minimum Wage

Citing inaction by the Pennsylvania House on minimum wage legislation adopted by the Senate last year, Governor Tom Wolf and Senator Tartaglione announced their intention to once again pursue a $15 minimum wage for the Commonwealth.

Under Senate Bill 12, which was introduced by Senator Tartaglione last March, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage would be raised to $12 this year and 50 cents more annually until it reaches $15. For ensuing years, the rate would be adjusted based on inflation. Pennsylvania’s current rate is $7.25 an hour, the lowest allowed under federal law. Twenty-nine states have adopted higher rates, including all six of Pennsylvania’s immediate neighbors.

The bipartisan bill adopted by the Senate in November, SB 79, proposes more-modest increases amounting to $9.50 an hour by 2022. But that bill has stalled in the House Labor Committee. The bill, which was introduced by Senator Tartaglione on January 23, 2019, also proposes to prevent employers from taking a portion of tips paid by customers to workers via credit cards.

“The unwillingness of Pennsylvania House leaders merely to consider our bipartisan minimum wage legislation is a sad commentary on their commitment to the working people of the Commonwealth,” Senator Tartaglione said.

The senator noted that the national economy is in a record-setting period of growth and that the stock market is setting record highs, yet one in eight Pennsylvanians are still living in poverty and less than half of Americans reported getting a raise last year.

“The economy may be working for some people, but it’s not working for most of us,” Senator Tartaglione said. “Obviously, if prosperity hasn’t trickled down to low-wage workers by now, something must be done to make that happen before the next recession arrives and it may be too late.”

“Too many workers are still struggling to get by because Pennsylvania hasn’t raised the minimum wage in more than a decade,” Governor Wolf said. “Pennsylvanians shouldn’t earn less than workers in West Virginia, Ohio, or New Jersey for the same job.

PA Regulatory Panel Approves New OT Regulations, Expanding Mandatory Pay Provisions

Pennsylvania’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) has approved new overtime regulations that could make hundreds of thousands of workers newly eligible for mandatory overtime pay.

By a vote of 3-2, the commission adopted the Department of Labor & Industry’s proposed changes to the Minimum Wage Act of 1968. Known as IRRC Regulation #12-106, the new provisions raise the income level used to determine an employee’s eligibility for mandatory overtime pay. The changes also update the definitions used to classify a worker as an “executive, administrative or professional salaried employee” (EAP).

The Senate and House Labor & Industry Committees have each voted along party lines to disapprove the new regulations. That opposition will delay the implementation of the new rules for 14 days, but legislative Republicans would have to convince Governor Wolf to sign a concurrent resolution if they want to prevent implementation permanently.

Under current state law, EAPs who earn just $250 per week or more are not covered by mandatory overtime pay requirements. That is, employers do not have to pay them at 150% their regularly hourly rate for any hours worked beyond 40 in a workweek.

“Considering today’s economic conditions, this means, in effect, that an employer may choose to deny overtime pay to any worker who meets the considerably subjective definitions of an EAP,” Senator Tartaglione wrote in a January 30 letter to IRRC.

The new regulations offered by the Wolf administration will raise the exemption level in increments to $875 per week ($45,500 per year) by 2022, which is more in line with the salaries that true professional, supervisory, and executive-level employees may command. Furthermore, the rulemaking will introduce an automatic adjustment to the exemption level, which will be updated every three years.

Finally, the new regulations will modify EAP definitions to align more closely with standardized federal definitions.

Labor Committee Hears Testimony on Paid Family and Medical Leave Legislation

The Senate Labor & Industry Committee shined a spotlight on the effort to secure paid family and medical leave for Pennsylvania workers as the committee conducted a January 28 public hearing on Senate Bill 580, the Family Care Act.

The bill would create an insurance program to allow workers up to 20 weeks of paid leave when a worker or a close family member encounters a serious illness, or when a worker becomes parent to a new child. The legislation has strong bipartisan support led by its primary sponsors, Senator Daniel Laughlin (R-Erie County) and Senator Maria Collett (D-Montgomery County).

Senator Tartaglione, the minority chairwoman of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, stated, “At some point in our lives, we all need time to take care of our loved ones. Every parent with a newborn child encounters that need. Every adult who must take care of an ailing parent, an ailing sibling, or an ailing child encounters that need. Sometimes, we need time off from work to take care of ourselves. In any case, nothing should take precedence over our families.”

Only 14% of American workers have access to paid family leave, while just 6% of those in the lowest income tier have access. Among those in the top income tier, 22% have access to paid family leave. Yet, those who use paid family leave are much less likely to apply for public assistance in the aftermath of their time away from work.

Under the proposed legislation, all working individuals would make a small payroll contribution to support the program, which would be administered by the Department of Labor & Industry. The initial level of the contribution would be about $117 for every $20,000 of income. An employee on paid leave could receive up to $1,900 a week depending on their regular pay rate.

To qualify, the worker must have logged at least 18 weeks on the job during the prior 12 months and must have earned at least $2,718. The earned income rate will be adjusted annually based on unemployment insurance rules.

Committee Chairwoman Camera Bartolotta reportedly told KDKA that “she really hopes lawmakers can find, with some modifications and compromise, a bill that will enact paid family medical leave in Pennsylvania.”

The state legislation would improve upon the limited coverage afforded by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows some employees to take unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks over a 12-month period. But it does not provide for compensation and is unavailable to many workers.