When he stepped aside as Philadelphia’s commerce director in early March, Harold T. Epps could cite some progress during his four years helping Mayor Jim Kenney persuade employers to grow in the nation’s poorest big city: 60,000 more jobs, more students staying post graduation, more home construction and retail renewal, a small dip in the poverty rate.
“I was blessed to serve as commerce director during an uptick,” Epps told me as his children and grandchildren waited to take him to dinner. He hoped it would prove a base for steady future growth, across the city, “lifting from the bottom.”
Four months later — amid the coronavirus shutdowns, after the end-of-May looting that scarred business districts from Castor and Aramingo to 80th and Lindbergh — Epps saw that future in doubt.
“I’m an African American business man, I look at the world through the eyes of business, and I am so frustrated,” he told me last week.
“The divide in Philadelphia has gotten more pronounced, more extreme, since March,” he said. “There’s the education divide, the health divide, the income divide, the net-worth divide. The social unrest is a declaration of the frustration. For a lot of people, the social and economic contract” — the unity that citizens feel feel when sharing hope of better times — “is broken.”
I knew Epps, who as CEO built PRWT Services Inc. into a facilities-management and business-process provider in 14 states, as a City Hall realist. When City Council tried to help workers by passing expensive employer restrictions and requirements, he warned how that could drive jobs away: “We would like more high-end jobs than tourism and hospitality. But if you don’t have a job, I would argue a job with wages and benefits is better than no job.” Get in the door, then rise up.
The solutions that Epps pushed haven’t changed — better schooling and job prep, national legislation to boost working conditions, and fair hiring, promotion and contracting that spreads prosperity instead of concentrating profits for a few.
What’s new is the obvious urgency. “If you want a chain to be stronger, find the weakest link. When it comes to economic conditions in America, that’s Black and brown folk. We need more jobs that pay enough so that you don’t need social assistance while you are working,” he said.
Epps gave Kenney and City Council some credit for boosting school funding and job-focused community college programs: ”The right direction. We are just not going fast enough. Even if you take 100,000 people tomorrow out of poverty, we still have 300,000 in poverty. Educational attainment, poverty, homicides, opiates, all are rooted in decades of disinvestment.”
Cities shouldn’t need their own labor rules. It’s still appalling to him that Pennsylvania has the lowest minimum wage of any neighboring state — even West Virginia’s is higher. Legislators in Harrisburg could fix that; why won’t they?
Similarly, employers shouldn’t be expected to solve workers’ health-care and retirement challenges alone; the national government needs to set better insurance standards and pension incentives; its failure makes a lie of politicians’ claims that they care about working people.
Successful investors who claim to care about health and racial justice, yet continue to squeeze front-line workers, are another face of the problem.
“So many people have not seen pay raises [above inflation] for more than 10 years,” said Epps. But if you look at the top of any organizations and see how much more incomes have improved for corporate CEOs and their lieutenants, “it is immoral.”
I told him how a private investor in Acme Markets’ owner Albertsons Inc. had boasted to me how the giant grocery chain had boosted wages (up to $4 an hour extra) for workers facing coronavirus. And how the investor claimed surprise when I pointed out Albertsons canceled the extra pay the week before its June 26 initial public stock offering (IPO) while preparing to double dividend payments to investors such as him.
“Of course he knew,” Epps shot back, comparing owners who feign ignorance of their workers’ job conditions to politicians’ “deflecting” attention from problems they don’t solve.
Some of Epps’ solutions align with his new career as an senior adviser to both Bellevue Strategies, the advocacy, legislative and communications firm headed by Mustafa Rashed; and Diversified Services Inc., the Philadelphia-based corporate headhunter.
Blacks, one-eighth of the U.S. population, are just 1% of the bosses at Fortune 500 companies, Epps noted. But at least today’s largest companies make clear they need “Black and brown” directors and managers to be credible with workers and customers, he added. Now, he said, it’s time for “middle market” and privately owned companies to do the same. Epps has made recommending minority candidates for those jobs a specialty at Diversified. He is also representing minority-run firms that seek to gain contracts at big corporations and government agencies, as PRWT did on Epps’ watch.
Philadelphia’s slower growth over the last decade may have saved it the displacement that has driven working people out of the city and forced too many others to shelters or the streets in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. But even that “reasonable” pace can’t continue now without a lot of effort, he said.
“I still think Philadelphia can outpace other urban areas in the 2020s,” Epps told me. “All the pieces are here. We crow about being one of the affordable cities, and our great geography — that is still true. We just have to have the will to come together.”