Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved three bills Thursday that aim to provide job security to the thousands of hospitality sector workers who were laid off during the coronavirus pandemic — and who would likely face more job instability as the recession drags on.
The package of bills, dubbed the “Black Workers Matter Economic Recovery Package,” covers more than 12,000 tourism industry workers, such as hotel housekeepers and stadium food service workers. Many are Black women.
“Historically, Black workers have been disproportionately impacted by economic crisis,” Sheri Davis-Faulkner, a labor scholar at Rutgers University, said during her City Council testimony for the bills last month. “The unemployment rate for African Americans typically rises faster and stays higher than any other group of workers.”
The bills cover a range of job security issues that have either come up during the pandemic or are expected to arise. Job security has been a focus of workers in other industries in the city, such as health care, as hospitals continue to change hands and workers get laid off or lose protections they fought for.
Councilmember Helen Gym’s “Right to Return” bill requires hospitality employers to recall workers who were laid off according to seniority, instead of hiring new workers when employers begin reopening. During the pandemic, workers have said they feared not being called back to work when their workplace reopened because of a range of issues: They supported a campaign to unionize, or maybe their employer would seek to hire new workers at a lower pay rate than they received.
“Knowing that I would have a job when this pandemic ends would be a game changer for me,” said Walter Barrett, a grandfather of seven who spent five years cooking at the Sheraton Downtown Philadelphia before he was laid off in March. “Financially, it would help me have some security and feel like I could retire securely and help out my family the way I always have.”
The other two bills, introduced by Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Isaiah Thomas, require hotels and food service contractors at the airport and the stadiums to keep workers on staff if the employer, or contract, changes hands. These kinds of ownership shifts are more likely during a recession, Davis-Faulkner said.
Aisha Johnson, a maintenance worker for Aramark at the stadiums in South Philadelphia, said it’s an issue that weighs heavily on her and her coworkers: “What if Aramark’s revenues don’t come back?”
“What if they walk away from their contract with the Eagles or Phillies or Flyers?” she said. “What will happen to us?”
Aramark spokesperson David Freireich said the company “supports City Council’s goal of protecting workers and appreciate their willingness to listen to input from the business community on how to achieve that goal.”
The Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association did not oppose the bill, though it said in a statement that the bill was “absolutely unnecessary” because hotel management already planned to hire workers back based on “seniority and diversity.” It added that the bill ”creates a heavy additional administrative burden at a time when hoteliers need to instead be using all of their time and energy trying to get visitors back into hotels in order to get people back to work.”
These proposals are the latest in a series of worker protection bills that Philadelphia has made law in the last two years, positioning the city as one of the national leaders in legislating worker protections. This trend, sometimes described as “municipal socialism,” is a response to little movement on these issues at the federal and sometimes state level. These laws are a testament to the growing clout of low-wage workers in City Hall — and in the case of the Black Workers Matter bills, a testament to the power of union UNITE HERE, which helped develop the legislative package and lobbied for its passage.
The pandemic has only intensified what advocates and elected officials describe as the need to pass such bills: With the passage of the Black Workers Matter bills Thursday, Council has passed five worker protection bills in under a year — nearly doubling the number of worker protection laws on the books pre-pandemic.
Enforcement and education remain major issues to the effectiveness of these bills. Many workers do not know about the rights they’ve won in Philadelphia in recent years, shown by the low number of complaints filed with the city. The Black Workers Matter bills will largely be enforced through “private right of action,” meaning that workers or a union could file a lawsuit against an employer alleged to have broken the law. Gym’s “Right to Return” bill would also be enforced through the city’s Office of Worker Protection, but details will be determined now that bill has passed.
Also on Thursday, Council unanimously passed another package of bills to help workers. Introduced by Councilmember Cherelle Parker, the Dr. Walter P. Lomax Jr. Transparency in Business Act, designed to provide greater opportunities to Black workers, will require any firm bidding for a city contract to report on the demographics of their staff and board.
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.