Philadelphia just got a lot closer to becoming the first U.S. city to enact a worker protection bill on the cutting edge of labor-oriented anti-poverty laws being considered around the country.
The “just-cause” bill, focused on the parking industry and approved by Council on Thursday would require employers to provide an appropriate reason for firing an employee. A similar bill, focused on fast-food workers, is being considered in New York.
The union organizing parking lot workers in Philadelphia, SEIU 32BJ, pushed for the bill as well as one focused on minimum staffing levels, because of what workers described as arbitrary and unfair firings. (It’s the same union behind the New York bill.) Seven parking workers from two companies, for example, said they were fired in the last 10 months after speaking out about working conditions and low pay.
The bill would cover about 1,000 parking workers, according to an estimate by the Keystone Research Center.
The bill was fiercely opposed by the parking industry, which said it was already under tremendous stress from the city’s parking tax and other business taxes. Not unlike the workers, parking lot operators organized through the Philadelphia Parking Association to rail against the tax last fall.
Critics also said the just-cause bill was a gateway to turning Philadelphia into a “just-cause” city.
“Right now, it’s the parking industry,” said Marjorie McMahon Obod, an employer-side labor lawyer at Dilworth Paxson. “Next time it could be hospitals. ... It could be all industries that service Philadelphia.”
“At-will" employment, where workers can be fired for any reason or no reason, is the standard in every state in the country except Montana. (Federal law and many state and city laws, however, protect workers from being fired for reasons related to their identity, including age, gender, and race.)
On the other hand, virtually all union contracts include “just-cause” language.
The vote for the “just-cause” bill was 12-4, with Democratic Councilman Henon, Republican Councilmen Brian O’Neill, David Oh, and Al Taubenberger voting against. The vote for minimum staffing was 13-3, with O’Neill, Oh, and Taubenberger voting against. Councilman Allan Domb abstained from both votes.
Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, who has received $4,000 in campaign contributions from 32BJ since January 2018, introduced both bills at the end of April. Since 2018, she’s also received campaign contributions from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce ($4,500) and Joseph Zuritsky, chairman of parking operator Parkway Corp. ($3,000). Both are opposed to the bill. She vowed at a hearing earlier this month to also help the parking industry with its tax woes.
Mayor Jim Kenney still has to sign the bills. In his testimony at a Council hearing earlier this month, Kenney’s deputy mayor for labor, Rich Lazer, said the mayor “supported the intent” of the just-cause bill.
“To be clear, [this bill] does not protect problem employees, and it does not stop employers from rightsizing a workplace, if that’s what the economics dictate,” Lazer said. "It provides workers who may be aggrieved with an opportunity to let their voice be heard.
“All of this aligns with Philadelphia’s long-term goals around inclusive growth,” Lazer said.
Another major concern, if Kenney signs the just-cause bill, is enforcement: The city’s small enforcement unit, housed in the Mayor’s Office of Labor, has a big task ahead of it, as it will begin implementing the city’s new “Fair Workweek” scheduling law next year. Labor activists and groups are currently pushing for the office to get more funding.
Philadelphia Media Network 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.