In 2019, the City of Philadelphia made a name for itself as it passed some of the most progressive worker protection laws in the nation.
This year, the big question is if the city can enforce those laws.
Initially scheduled to go into effect in January 2020, this law, which regulates how fast-food, retail, and hotel chains schedule 130,000 low-wage employees in the city, will now roll out in April. The delay will help ensure that employers comply with the law, said Candace Chewning, spokesperson for the city’s Office of Labor, which is responsible for its enforcement. The delay angered advocates, including the labor group One Pennsylvania that led the fight for the law, who said that the delay suggested the city was bending to industry pressure, was ill-prepared for enforcement, or both.
In preparation for enforcement, the city has hired an investigator who will focus solely on Fair Workweek, joining the two investigators that focus on wage theft, paid sick leave, and the new “just cause” law for parking workers. It also plans to hire an outreach staffer focused on working with employers and has hosted a series of employer training sessions in the last few months.
Last May, Philadelphia became the first city to pass a bill that made it illegal to fire parking-lot workers without “just cause,” or an appropriate reason. The law, pushed for by the union 32BJ SEIU that is organizing parking-lot attendants, covers 1,000 workers in the city and went into effect in September. At least one complaint has already been filed, officials said last month, and is currently being investigated.
The legislation, which passed last fall and provides labor protections to the city’s 16,000 nannies, house cleaners, and other domestic workers, will go into effect in May. The regulations process, where details about how the law will work get finalized, begins next week.
The law’s“portable benefits” system, which will allow these workers to accrue paid time off, will take longer to implement, as the city has to purchase a system and hire a contractor to run it. This request for proposals process has not yet begun, Chewning said. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, the parent organization of the local group that advocated for the bill of rights, has such a system and said it would apply to the city’s request for proposals. The result will be the first city-run program in the country that allows domestic workers to access paid time off.
The Philadelphia International Airport’s lease agreement with American Airlines and other airlines is set to be a major battleground for the city’s two major service-worker unions, UNITE HERE and 32BJ SEIU, this year. The current, five-year agreement expires June 30 and airport spokesperson Florence Brown said the airport is in talks with the airlines to negotiate a new agreement before the current one expires. City Council has to approve the agreement.
UNITE HERE and 32BJ SEIU represent a combined 2,700 workers at the airport — food service workers, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, and airline caterers — and the lease agreement could help or hinder their ability to negotiate favorable contracts. During the last lease agreement negotiation, 32BJ was able to raise wages for its members.
In December, the Kenney administration took a big step toward enforcing a law that would give 1,400 security guards a raise: Thanks to a City Council bill that passed at the end of the year, he can now withhold a water bill discount for nonprofits like Penn and Temple if they don’t ensure that workers got the raise. Now, the question is if he’ll use it.
Kenney has been trying to enforce this "prevailing wage” law for security guards since early 2019; it’s an example of how the city struggles to enforce its own worker protection laws once they’re passed. The security guards are represented by 32BJ SEIU, which has advocated for Kenney to enforce the wage law.
There’s widespread support among Philadelphians for a minimum-wage raise to $15 an hour, as shown by a symbolic ballot question in last year’s primary — nearly 82% of voters were in favor. And newly elected Councilperson Kendra Brooks campaigned on fighting to raise the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. Pennsylvania law bars cities from raising their minimum wage, but some believe it could be achieved through a legal challenge — provided there is the political will and strong worker organizing.
There aren’t any groups that are actively organizing workers around a minimum-wage raise in Philadelphia, as there were back in 2014. Unions generally haven’t organized around the issue because their members are making above $15 an hour. That leaves nonunion labor groups, known as “alt-labor,” and they’ve opted to fight for other types of labor protections, like the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights and Fair Workweek.
That’s in part because raising the minimum wage is an uphill battle; legislative campaigns, like Fair Workweek, are seen as a better use of resources, especially since it’s hard to find funding sources for organizing work. And as veteran labor organizer Kati Sipp put it: “It’s hard to get workers involved in a campaign with no easy victories.”
A coalition of labor advocates lobbied for stronger enforcement of the city’s labor laws last year and won a modest increase in funding for the Mayor’s Office of Labor. This year, they might be able to land another victory: Making the Office of Labor a permanent fixture. Right now, the department is part of the Mayor’s Office, which means that if a new mayor decides labor is not a worthy issue, the office could be scrapped. The city is making moves to get a question on the ballot in the April primary, Chewning confirmed. The ballot question will first have to be approved by Council.
At the very end of 2019, Kenney didn’t sign Councilperson Allan Domb’s measure to give wage tax refunds to low-income Philadelphians, effectively vetoing the bill. The bill was expected to refund an average of $41 a month for 51,000 workers. Kenney said that the bill would be hard to implement and that his administration was looking into alternatives, The Inquirer’s Laura McCrystal reported. Domb plans to reintroduce the bill this year, said Domb’s deputy chief of staff, Brian Higgins.
Philly’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, is negotiating its next contract with the city this year. It’s usually a quiet affair, but this time, police accountability activists are trying to influence the talks, saying that the collective bargaining agreement is standing in the way of true reform at the scandal-plagued department. The FOP represents 6,000 officers.
Councilperson Bobby Henon, set to stand trial on federal corruption charges this year, will continue his effort to crack down on the construction industry’s “underground economy," a long-standing target for the building trades who say that unlicensed contractors are depressing wages and putting workers in danger on the job. Henon has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
His 2019 effort to create a “contractor review board” failed, but he’s considering introducing new legislation to combat the underground economy and will push for funding for Licenses & Inspections to hire more inspectors this budget season, said Lauren Atwell, Henon’s deputy chief of staff.