The city’s longstanding position as the poorest big city in the nation’s remains the most intractable problem facing Philadelphia. The poverty rate is connected to nearly every aspect of life in our city from education, to health care, to the criminal justice system. And of course, to race. Poverty disproportionately affects the city’s black population, creating barriers to progress that prove daunting to overcome.
All these issues become concentrated at the workplace. Hundreds of thousands of hardworking Philadelphians work low-wage jobs that keep them stuck in poverty. If a worker does not make enough money to pay their bills, and can be fired on a whim, they will not be able to break the cycle. For many black workers, the lack of access to good schools, housing, and credit makes the ground even shakier.
The parking industry, which is taking center stage in Council this week, provides a perfect example of this trap. Nine out of ten parking workers are African American, or African immigrants, and are over the age of 24.
These workers exemplify the disconnect seen at many jobs between a lucrative industry — in this case, an industry worth around $440 million — and an impoverished and mistreated workforce. Parking workers are surviving on the margins, their livelihoods often left to the whim of their boss’ mood on a given day. Not only do they face job insecurity with their schedules, hours and employment, they endure a true lack of security on the job. The race to automate parking lots leaves lots and garages unstaffed and understaffed, hurting workers and customers alike.
Good jobs are the clearest, simplest answer to our poverty problem. The city is prohibited by state law from unilaterally raising the minimum wage. However, it’s exploring other ways to improve the lives of thousands of low-wage workers. The city is making progress for workers and has furthered some of the most progressive labor laws in the country including paid sick days, Fair Work Week, the 21st Century Wage Standard, and the Prevailing Wage for Service Sector workers. And this Thursday, Council will vote on two bills introduced by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker to help workers in the parking industry: Just Cause and Minimum Staffing.
The Just Cause bill would instill more fairness in a parking industry where employers can reduce workers’ hours or fire workers for totally arbitrary reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired or have their hours reduced without warning, forcing workers and their families to live in constant uncertainty and fear. Currently workers have no legal recourse if they are fired without just cause. Many of these workers count on every single paycheck to support themselves and their families, and a sudden loss of any income could mean the difference between having a home and not.
The Minimum Staffing bill would ensure that the city’s parking lots and garages are adequately staffed so that workers and customers are safe. These commonsense bills will help an estimated 1,000 mostly black workers in the parking industry. The bills do not require a dime from taxpayers and could make a difference in the lives of hardworking Philadelphians. Parking workers park cars at some of the city’s most expensive commercial buildings and luxury hotels. Yet they go home, after working 12-hour shifts to some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. Meanwhile, parking companies make multimillion-dollar deals to develop the space above their lots, requiring zoning variances from the city and tax breaks for the buildings.
City Council has an opportunity to vote for parking justice bills that will make a dent in black poverty in our city by moderating the parking industry’s callous instability. A vote for the parking justice bills is a vote for directly addressing the core problem that has long troubled our city.