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How slow-to-act Philadelphia came to pass some of the most cutting-edge worker laws in the nation

It took Philly seven years to pass a paid-sick leave law. Now it's passing progressive workplace laws in swift succession.

Fast-food and retail workers marched near City Hall in February 2018 as part of the launch of a local effort to fight for “Fair Workweek” legislation. It's one of the cutting-edge labor protections that the city has passed in the last year.
Fast-food and retail workers marched near City Hall in February 2018 as part of the launch of a local effort to fight for “Fair Workweek” legislation. It's one of the cutting-edge labor protections that the city has passed in the last year.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

On a sunny day in June, City Council members were chanting “Unity, dignity, power!” alongside house cleaners and nannies at City Hall to celebrate the introduction of a bill that would give workplace rights to domestic workers.

“At City Council, we consider ourselves allies to the workers of Philadelphia," said Council member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, the primary sponsor of the bill.

What sounded like run-of-the-mill politician talk actually rang true: In the last year, the city has passed two cutting-edge labor protections for low-wage workers, one mandating consistent schedules for the city’s 130,000 service workers, another making it illegal to fire parking workers without an appropriate reason. And it’s poised to pass within the next year what advocates are calling the strongest domestic workers’ bill of rights in the country.

These are the types of laws that scream Seattle or New York — not Philly, which took seven years to pass a paid sick leave law. Not the Philly that enacted “ban the box” legislation after more than two dozen cities already had. And certainly not the Philly that can’t even raise its own minimum wage because state law prohibits it, and whose elected officials declined to take up the challenge when pressed by advocates.

And yet, here we are.

There are national forces behind Philadelphia’s shift. Namely, the move toward “municipal socialism,” that has unions and labor advocates pressuring cities to enact worker laws to fight income inequality in lieu of any traction in Washington. It takes a large amount of time and resources to unionize a new workplace, and some workers — house cleaners, Uber drivers — don’t have the right to collectively bargain; so, the thinking goes, why not appeal to a sympathetic City Hall to legislate rights, instead? Local networks, including LocalProgress and the Center for Popular Democracy, help advocates push for these kinds of laws, replicating them in cities from one coast to the other. Critics of the movement describe it as cities trying to “out-progressive one another."

But how did Philly go from being behind the curve to trailblazer status?

Kenney as the workers’ mayor

Jim Kenney the councilman may have voted against paid sick leave twice, but Jim Kenney the mayor? Unlikely. On the campaign trail, Kenney, whom big labor helped elect, vowed to lift up workers.

“Jim Kenney is one of the most aggressively pro-union, pro-low-wage-worker mayors in the country,” said Gabe Morgan, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, which has successfully pushed Philadelphia to pass several worker laws, including the “just-cause” firing bill for parking workers.

Kenney created a Mayor’s Office of Labor, whose head, Rich Lazer, has boasted that “one of the pillars of [Kenney’s] administration is worker-protection laws.” And Kenney has been a vocal supporter of these types of bills early on in the legislative process, making them an easier sell to City Council.

>> READ MORE: Mayor Kenney wants to raise minimum wage for city contractors to $15/hour

It’s a far cry from his predecessor, Mayor Michael Nutter, who was more oriented toward Center City and Silicon Valley-style innovation, the man who vetoed paid sick leave twice, saying he couldn’t force businesses to pay an additional cost during the recession. By the third time, Council member Bill Greenlee, who led the paid sick leave charge, was threatening that he’d rustle up the 12 Council votes needed for an override.

Council as rally leaders

It’s not just about the mayor. Paid sick time was initially a controversial measure, barely passing, 9-8, before getting vetoed in 2011. But these days, it’s usually just the three Republicans on Council who vote against labor protection laws.

Council has changed its approach, too. Greenlee, who also introduced Philly’s law levying penalties on employers who steal wages from workers, “was a champion, but he was never the guy who was out leading rallies,” said Kati Sipp, a former union organizer who consults with labor groups and worked on Fair Workweek.

>> READ MORE: How Philly’s office to protect workers is changing after a sputtering start

But Council member Helen Gym, a former community organizer, understands the role that activists play in getting bills passed. In her bid to pass Fair Workweek scheduling legislation, she gave workers and labor groups a platform, Sipp said, and modeled that behavior to other Council members. Gym’s approach seems to have resonated with voters: She got more votes in the May primary than any other Council candidate since 1987.

Worker activism in City Hall

There’s a reason Council is more attuned to workers — and not just the building trade union leaders it’s been known to court: New kinds of workers in Philadelphia are getting organized and showing up at City Hall to push for new protections. As traditional labor unions such as UNITE HERE and 32BJ SEIU have increasingly focused their efforts locally, groups including One Pennsylvania (Fair Workweek), the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance (domestic worker bill of rights), and the Philadelphia Drivers Union (which is currently advocating for ride-share drivers) are also proving that, union or not, workers who organize can wield influence in City Hall.

“People are realizing that there’s a limit to how much you can win when the most impacted people are not at the center of the fight,” said Cecily Harwitt, One Pennsylvania’s organizing director.

Where advocates say Philly needs work

Despite Philly’s recent track record of passing workplace laws, it still lags in enforcement of these laws. Philly is the first city to pass Fair Workweek without also implementing a higher minimum wage — which, because it affects a greater number of workers, usually pushes a city to establish a system for enforcement, said Rachel Deutsch, a lawyer with the Center for Popular Democracy who has helped work on Fair Workweek laws across the country.

A big part of the problem is that the city hasn’t invested in outreach and education efforts, so that most workers don’t know these laws exist. In the three years from 2016 to 2018, Philly’s three-member Office of Labor Enforcement received 67 complaints regarding wage theft and paid sick leave. Meanwhile, Seattle’s 23-member office, thought to be the gold standard for this kind of work, resolved more than 100 wage theft and paid sick leave cases in 2018 alone.

It’s why labor groups have set their sights on enforcement, developing worker-led enforcement boards and already landing a modest increase in the Office of Labor Enforcement’s 2020 budget.

As Harwitt puts it: “There’s a limit to how much those wins mean if people don’t know about them.”

The 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