The Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would all but ensure the creation of a permanent city agency dedicated to enforcing the numerous progressive labor laws it has passed in recent years.

The bill — introduced by Councilmembers Helen Gym and Bobby Henon in partnership with the Kenney administration — would pose this question to voters in the April primary: Should the city create a permanent Department of Labor that would enforce city labor laws and function as a front door for all worker-related issues?

The question has to be put to voters because it requires a city charter change.

Right now, the Mayor’s Office of Labor, created under the Kenney administration, provides these services, but advocates fear a future mayor with different priorities could scrap the office all together.

This effort is part of a broader push by advocates and organizers for stronger labor law enforcement in a city that’s passed some of the most progressive pro-worker legislation in the country but has historically failed to both educate workers about these laws and enforce them.

That started to change in the last year, as advocates who pushed for these laws set their sights on enforcement. Advocates won a modest increase in funding for the Mayor’s Office of Labor, which grew its budget to nearly $1.1 million this year and doubled its staff to six. The number of complaints filed by workers to the office quadrupled from 2018 to 2019 to nearly 100.

People march down Market Street towards Philadelphia City Hall for a press conference in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. The Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW) marched in support of stronger labor enforcement in city government.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
People march down Market Street towards Philadelphia City Hall for a press conference in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. The Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW) marched in support of stronger labor enforcement in city government.

These developments come at a time when Mayor Jim Kenney has faced criticism from the business community about the city’s recent progressive bent. Advocates and politicians have framed the new worker protection laws as antipoverty measures in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the nation.

The current Mayor’s Office of Labor is in charge of enforcing laws around paid sick leave, unfair firings, and wage theft. Soon, the office would also be responsible for enforcing the “Fair Workweek” scheduling law for low-wage service workers and the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which gives worker protections to housekeepers and nannies. These are laws that largely serve nonunion workers, as just 1 in 10 American workers are union members.

But many low-wage workers have said they didn’t know about their rights under Philly laws. That has become a rallying cry for certain workers: Baristas at Starbucks and the Fishtown bakery Cake Life, for example, felt empowered to demand rights after they learned they hadn’t been getting the paid sick leave they were due.

A permanent city agency — like the Department of Revenue or Licenses & Inspections — generally has more influence and funding than at-will mayoral offices. And Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer said he believed creating a permanent Department of Labor would provide more legitimacy to the office, which would encourage workers to report violations of labor law.

One of the biggest hurdles to this type of enforcement is worker reluctance to report violations for fear of retaliation, said Janice Fine, research and strategy director at Rutgers University’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization.

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Philadelphia is an outlier among its big-city counterparts: Most already have permanent offices that handle this type of enforcement, said Fine, who’s working on a book about local labor law enforcement.

Aside from enforcing labor law, the Department of Labor would also handle sexual harassment and discrimination claims from city workers and manage contract negotiations with the municipal unions.

How likely is it that the ballot question will pass?

Voters rarely reject ballot questions in Philadelphia. And voters in the poorest big city in the nation seem to want to lift standards for low-wage workers: In last year’s primary, nearly 82% of voters said they were in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and in the general election, voters elected independent City Council candidate Kendra Brooks, who campaigned on stronger enforcement of city labor laws, among other progressive platforms.

City Councilmember Helen Gym speaks outside of City Hall during a press conference in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, February 12, 2020, next to Councilmembers Bobby Henon and Kendra Brooks.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
City Councilmember Helen Gym speaks outside of City Hall during a press conference in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, February 12, 2020, next to Councilmembers Bobby Henon and Kendra Brooks.

Antibusiness vs. pro-growth

The move to create a permanent Department of Labor comes as Mayor Kenney has fielded criticism from the business community that the city’s new worker laws are antibusiness.

“Our administration is pro-growth,” Kenney told the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. “But it is important that we harness that growth in a responsible way. We need only look at the homelessness and housing crises in cities like San Francisco and Seattle to see the potential impact of growth that is not inclusive of everyone.”

The Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on the Department of Labor bill.

The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, which opposed the city’s Fair Workweek scheduling law, said a permanent office was a “reasonable step in solidifying the mayor’s vision that he had in establishing the Office of Labor."

“If approved by referendum, we look forward to collaborating with the Department, City Council, and the mayor’s office to ensure Philadelphia is a great place for businesses and employees alike,” said Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for PRLA.

Organizers and advocates, who rallied Wednesday evening outside City Hall, said the Department of Labor bill was just the beginning. They plan to fight for more funding for the office in the coming budget season, along with whistle-blower protections for workers who report violations, and funding for community organizations that already have trust with workers and can help bring violations to the fore — a best practice in the labor enforcement world.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 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.