In the first six months of 2020, Philadelphia workers have filed roughly the same number of complaints with the city’s labor enforcement office as they did in all of 2019, according to a newly released city report. These complaints are allegations that employers have broken one of the city’s six labor laws.
The city also helped workers get paid $21,000 in wages they were owed in the first half of 2020, roughly the same amount they helped workers get paid in all of 2019.
It’s a significant uptick for the Office of Benefits and Wage Compliance, which is responsible for enforcing the city’s growing slate of labor laws, but for years has languished in obscurity. That growth suggests that more workers are learning about their rights and taking measures to secure them.
But the number of complaints filed in the first half of 2020 — 79 — and the amount of wages recouped is still far below what would be expected for a city of Philadelphia’s size. In 2018, Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, a national leader in labor enforcement, was able to get nearly $1.3 million paid back to workers in wage theft investigations alone.
The uptick in complaints comes as labor advocates — the same ones who pushed for the city to pass progressive worker protection laws such as “Fair Workweek” and the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights — have waged a campaign to increase the city’s labor enforcement action and outreach. These new laws won’t matter unless workers know about them and the city enforces them, the advocates said. The group, known as the Coalition to Respect Every Worker, or CREW, scored a major win when voters approved the creation of a permanent city Department of Labor through a ballot measure during the spring.
Here are our main takeaways from the report.
The pandemic contributed to the uptick in complaints, especially with paid sick leave.
In the first six months of 2020, city investigations helped workers get paid $5,000 in sick leave, up from about $1,500 in all of 2019. Much of that increase is due to workers filing complaints about not getting paid for their accrued sick leave as they were laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic, said Candace Chewning, spokesperson for the mayor’s Office of Wage and Benefits Compliance.
It’s been a slow start for new laws on the books.
Fair Workweek, which mandates consistent scheduling for retail and fast-food workers, and the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which gives nannies and house cleaners labor protections, went into effect during the spring. In the first half of 2020, the city received just one Fair Workweek complaint, though the law was expected to cover 130,000 workers. That’s because many of the workers covered by these laws had been laid off or furloughed when the laws went into effect, Chewning said.
The city has received three complaints for its whistle-blower protection law — which went into effect at the end of June, and protects workers from retaliation if they speak up about unsafe COVID-19 conditions — but those came in July and are not reflected on this report, Chewning said.
A major enforcement piece is missing in this report.
Many of the worker complaints that the city is currently fielding are not about any of its six labor laws: They’re about employers failing to follow the city’s public health orders on how employers should operate in the coronavirus era. These are such regulations as “employers must allow for social distancing on the job” and “employees must get hand-washing breaks every hour” that have become de facto worker protection laws.
The Office of Benefits and Wage Compliance does not enforce those guidelines (though it does enforce a law that prohibits retaliation for speaking up about employers not following these guidelines); that responsibility is spread among other agencies such as the Health Department and Licenses & Inspections, which have been increasing their enforcement actions.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.