Controversial tax abatement bill pits Philly building trades unions against concerns for immigrant workers
A bill designed to prevent unscrupulous contractors from receiving construction tax benefits sparked a debate about whether it could also open the door for a crackdown on undocumented workers.
A City Council bill designed to prevent unscrupulous contractors from receiving construction tax benefits sparked a debate about whether it could also open the door for a crackdown on undocumented workers in an unusually contentious committee hearing on Monday.
At issue was a bill by Councilmember Bobby Henon that would prohibit projects using construction firms that improperly classify workers as independent contractors from qualifying for the city’s residential property tax abatement, which provides 10 years of tax benefits on the value of new construction and renovations.
“How do we ensure that the application of this isn’t discriminatory toward undocumented workers who have no recourse?” City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said during a Finance Committee hearing on the bill. “There’s no other way for the communities that I represent to see it any other way than they are potentially being targeted.”
After heated debate, the committee eventually approved the bill in a rare divided vote of 6-3, but not before Henon was forced to provide assurances that, before the bill comes to the Council floor for final passage, he would work to identify regulations that would ensure it does not endanger immigrant workers.
» READ MORE: Philly’s 10-year tax abatement and construction tax are back on the agenda. Here’s what’s different this time.
It’s not the first time that Quiñones-Sánchez has clashed with Henon, the former political director of the powerful electricians union that has unsuccessfully sought to oust Quiñones-Sánchez from her Kensington-based district in multiple elections.
And it’s also not the first time the two have clashed over legislation by Henon aimed at combating what he describes as a rampant “underground economy” of fly-by-night contractors that operate without licenses and don’t follow construction safety standards — and don’t hire union workers.
But Monday’s vote was notable because their Council colleagues, who have in recent years passed aggressive protections both for workers and for immigrants, in the uncomfortable position of taking sides.
“Is there any way this can be resolved not hurting one or the other, and [finding] some middle ground here?” Councilmember Allan Domb asked before voting for the bill despite no compromise being reached.
Domb was joined by Councilmembers Helen Gym, Derek Green, Cindy Bass, and Mark Squilla in backing the bill. Councilmembers David Oh and Curtis Jones Jr. joined Quiñones-Sánchez in opposing the bill.
Henon’s proposal would add language to the residential tax abatement law that would require the city ensure that building firms involved in a project getting the tax benefit haven’t dodged city wage taxes by misclassifying workers as independent contractors when they should be employees.
Henon said the bill was not meant to target immigrants and that it was merely meant to ensure construction firms were following employment law.
“This is not penalizing workers in anyway. This is protecting workers,” he said. “I am always open to having a conversation to try to work out some of the unintended consequences with our Revenue Department.”
But Quiñones-Sánchez said that filing as an independent contractor is the only option available to undocumented immigrants — who make up between 15% and 25% of the local construction workforce, according to a 2018 estimate by the city controller — aside from working completely off the books.
Quiñones-Sánchez said if Henon was primarily interested in safety, he would propose a bill aimed at ensuring undocumented workers are protected by safety rules, not one that would keep them off job sites.
“He’s going to blame every crumbling building on employees, workers who are coming on the site, who are not the developer,” she said. “That is unfair to make that connection between the problems we are having on construction sites and, again, these undocumented workers.”
Advancing the bill, she said, undermines the city’s commitment to being welcoming to immigrants.
“We can’t sit here and say we are a sanctuary city,” she said. “People need to pay [taxes] and they should pay, but we shouldn’t use the workers as an excuse.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 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.