Since 2015 Philadelphia has passed some of America’s strongest worker-protection laws, mandating paid sick leave and imposing “wage theft” penalties on employers who, for instance, fail to pay for overtime hours or take a cut of tips. Last year the city also approved measures requiring consistent schedules for Philly’s 130,000 service workers, and making it illegal for the parking industry to fire employees without cause. Politicians have hailed themselves for such legislation, but only recently has City Hall begun toughening up enforcement, particularly in cases that involve lower-wage workers. This is welcome news in a city where one out of every four residents lives in poverty, and a 2015 study by Temple University’s Sheller Center for Social Justice found that thousands of people across Pennsylvania were having wages stolen by their employers — such as the 187,000 Walmart workers in the state who collectively won a $151 million settlement from the company in 2014.
A new report by Mayor Jim Kenney’s Office of Labor shows a 400% increase both in the dollar amount of wages recovered and in the number of complaints since 2018, and a 200% increase in the number of labor law enforcement violation notices issued. The whole numbers behind those percentages are less impressive, however: The total wages recovered went from $3,871 to $21,113, complaints from 18 to 89, and violations, from 4 to 15, between 2018 and 2019.
This is not to dismiss the impact on individual wage earners who won their cases. But the city’s efforts have historically suffered from too-few resources and too-little attention. As The Inquirerreported, Seattle — a city with a population just under half of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million — has a far more robust compliance operation, with a $6.6 million budget in 2018 that dwarfs the current $1.1 million budget of its Philly counterpart. More importantly, Seattle in 2018 resolved 76 sick pay investigations compared to nine and 62 wage theft investigations compared to three in Philadelphia.
In recent years, grassroots pressure has pushed some local governments to begin grappling with the causes of income inequality and the poverty it helps feed. Not everyone is in favor of local governments grappling with income inequality and workers rights; many dub it “municipal socialism.” But consider the impact of lost wages on the economy as a whole, not just individual workers. In fact, according to Temple’s report, in any given workweek, Pennsylvania workers lose between $19 million and $32 million in wages. That leaves a big hole in local and regional economies.
Philly’s improved enforcement includes streamlined complaint procedures and a new effort to call out as “bad actors” certain businesses that fail to comply.
Shaming is not in itself antibusiness, according to Candace Chewning, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Labor. “These laws make Philadelphia a good place to work, and we think businesses want that, too,” says Chewning.