“Philadelphia Inquirer” labor reporter Juliana Feliciano Reyes and ILR Dean Alex Colvin discuss the role that cities like Philadelphia are playing, through initiatives such as the Fair Workweek law, to secure workers’ rights.
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Juliana Reyes 0:02
Work is all around us. It defines us. The future work impacts nearly every person on our planet and the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice around the world. In this episode of "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment," Dean Alex Colvin speaks with Juliana Reyes, labor reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Alex Colvin 0:23
Well, thanks for joining us here today on the podcast. One of the things that has been really interesting in the worker rights area is that traditionally we've thought about a lot of stuff going on a federal level, when you think about the federal government passing labor laws, and there's the Civil Rights Act that the federal government passed, but in recent years, is it is really interesting trend where a lot of action seems to have moved down to the state or even the local level, and we're seeing cities taking the lead in a lot of areas. You know, think about things like the Fight for 15 campaign that really caught fire in certain cities like Seattle, and innovations, like paid sick leave that some cities have put in place. And Philadelphia seems like a city where there's really a lot of interesting labor activity going on at the local level. So I was hoping we can talk a little about some of those interesting worker protection laws that have been passed in Philadelphia. I know it was one of those cities that has been part of that $15 an hour wave. Maybe we could start there. You know, what, what was behind the success there in Philadelphia? You know, why? Why did we why do we see a city like Philadelphia, moving forward in that area when you know, at the national level, we're stuck with the $7.25 minimum wage that we've had for almost a decade. But you know, it's really taken off at the city level.
Juliana Reyes 1:47
Yeah, well, actually, when it comes to the $15 an hour minimum wage, Philadelphia hasn't gotten there yet, largely because of preemption. There's a state law that bars Philly from raising its minimum wage. And there was like a big organizing effort here in Philly to sort of push our local politicians to challenge the state, but that never really came through. That was like in 2014.
Alex Colvin 2:14
No, but then there's some there's been a number of areas where there has been success at the at the local level with enactments. So, you know, one of the things I was noticing is this Fair Workweek regulation that's, that has succeeded. And we've seen some really interesting innovation.
Juliana Reyes 2:31
Yeah, so we've seen the really, in the last like year and a half, we've been a huge wave of this progressive worker legislation in Philly. And it's interesting to compare to so sort of one of the first progressive like worker protection laws actually passed was paid sick leave. But that campaign took about six years. So it was vetoed a number of times. Yeah, it took a long time. And it was vetoed a number of times, but by the mayor, by Mayor Nutter at the time, and it just just took a lot longer. So we're looking at six years for that. And then fast forward to 2018 and that's when the Fair Workweek campaign kicked off. And that was to give like more consistent scheduling to retail and fast food and hotel workers. And basically, we saw that bill become law in about a year. So it's totally different. And right after that, we also saw Just C ause protections for parking lot workers, basically a law that would bar unfair firing in a certain industry. And then we also saw the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights passed here most recently. So it's been sort of like, yeah, the cascading effect in Philly.
Alex Colvin 3:44
Yeah. What was the switch that happened? You said that, you know, there being vetoes on the initial efforts that the paid sick leave for that extended period, but then suddenly, you get this acceleration? What What changed at the city at that time?
Juliana Reyes 3:58
Yeah, so there's a couple of things. I mean, one is just the national trend, as you pointed out to, like there's not much happening on the federal level and so things have been sort of kicked down to state and city. And I think that organizers and unions and politicians are all kind of seeing that, like, there's a lot that can be won at the local level. And so there's a lot of opportunity there. So there's that trend. And then I think, and there was also so these protections that we're talking about Fair Work, the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, like these are all part of national movements. And so like Philly was not the first place to pass Fair Workweek. There were other cities that preceded it. And same goes for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. And I think that helps because it's hard to be the first but if there's like this movement, and there's already research done in other cities, and there's already like, yeah, traction for it in other cities. It's easier that way. Like, that's what I've heard from folks here. With the one other big thing I've heard about the different, different sort of progressive political wave in Philly, but what I what I think is even more important to focus on is that there's been more worker organizing here in Philly, versus during the campaign for paid sick. And I've heard that a lot from organizers that like, that kind of organizing is really important when it comes to winning laws like this, because it really gives like a face to the struggles. So it's not just like, bureaucrats, like our politicians saaing like, we need this, but there's actual like real life people saying, like, here's how this will change my life and like, here's how this is affecting me.
Alex Colvin 5:45
Yeah, so political constituency that they want to respond to is pushing that.
Juliana Reyes 5:51
Alex Colvin 5:52
It was it's interesting that both those examples of Fair Work and the Domestic Worker bill of rights are targeted, in some ways, right? The Domestic Worker Bill of Rights is obviously targeted towards domestic workers. And and my understanding and correct me if I'm wrong on this, that the fair workweek is targeted at particular sectors, like food, retail and hotel workers. Did did that help get it passed that it was targeted to particular sectors?
Juliana Reyes 6:19
That's a good question. I think. For Fair Workweek I think it did help because the service sector, I'm using that term to mean like retail, fast food, hotel, like, that's a very big part of the workforce in Philadelphia. They were estimating like, 130,000 people work in that in those fields, it's probably more. So. So yes, I think there's like this sense of this is a workforce that we're not really tending to or like paying attention to. It's very big and growing.
Alex Colvin 6:53
Yeah, yeah. I mean, the counter argument you sometimes wonder is, is, you know, are ya gonna get pushback from those industries. Now, if I if I was a big hotel or retail employer in Philadelphia, you know, I might feel targeted by this. Was there a big pushback from employers in the industry, when these when these bills were being proposed?
Juliana Reyes 7:13
Yes, there was. There was the Chamber of Commerce spoke out against it and they were, and they really opposed this wave of worker protection laws. They say that the city is overstepping and trying to act as like an HR, an HR back office, and that should be left to the companies. So yeah, and like I went to hearings where there were representatives from different companies that talked about like, why this law just didn't make sense. It was too like one size fits all, and that it would ultimately lead to workers getting their hours cut, because it would like hurt business. So So yes, there was definitely pushback. But ultimately, the law, the bill prevailed and it did really well in council. There was only maybe like three people that voted against that
Alex Colvin 8:02
Has has there been any reaction yet from the from the employer side since the bills were passed, in terms of you know, how they're adjusting to it, you know, any kind of responses yet.
Juliana Reyes 8:16
So it hasn't been implemented yet. And it was supposed to begin in January, but the city actually pushed back their implementation date, because they heard from businesses that they needed. It, there was like, more time was needed to make sure that businesses could like fully follow the law.
Alex Colvin 8:36
Yeah, yeah. It is interesting in some of these, some of these laws, we've seen reactions, like there's actually a sort of HR business area now expanding to help companies comply with these laws. So it's been interesting to see, you know, nationally that theres in some response to this as a business opportunity. One of the things, I'm curious, has have you seen any reports of other cities looking at what Philadelphia did? You know, it's like is Pittsburgh, gonna copy Philadelphia, or maybe, you know, Camden, New Jersey, or, you know, Baltimore, or anywhere else? Are you seeing interest from elsewhere and what Philadelphia's been doing?
Juliana Reyes 9:15
Yeah, just anecdotally, I haven't seen like, formally cities, looking to Philly. But I know that our Domestic Worker Bill of Rights is, like, advocates are saying that it's the most robust in the country. And so there's one in Seattle right now, but ours, like has more features, I guess, so to speak. And it's also going to have this portable benefits system that will give paid time off to domestic workers or allow them to accrue it. And so that would be the first on a municipal level that functions like that. And I think folks will definitely be watching to see Philly's rollout of that.
Alex Colvin 9:53
Yeah, so that is, you know, does it work successfully or not? Because, yeah, that's obviously going to be something that's going to require quite a bit of implementation and work to get the portal benefits working. And I want to talk a little about that Just Cause for parking lot workers bill. That that's a pretty fascinating one to me for, for a couple reasons. One is that Americans have this tradition of employment at will as being the basic rule, that you know there is no just cause. So this seems a pretty big change. And it's almost, but it's also interesting that it was parking lot of workers that it's focused on. Can you talk a little about the, what was going on with that with that bill? Like, how did this, how did this come to be that this was, this became a bill?
Juliana Reyes 10:34
Sure, yes. It was pushed for by 32BJ SEIU, which is a pretty powerful union here in Philly and they represent building service workers, and they're also organizing parking lot workers right now. Right. And so and so they were pushing for a similar bill in New York for fast food workers specifically. And I think that the bill stalled like it didn't go through. But in Philly, it was successful. But that's why it focuses specifically on parking lot workers. And 32BJ was bringing these workers into city council and talking to city council people about their concerns. And one of the things was that a few, there was a group of workers that basically were fired after it was shown that they supported unionizing. And in the end, they got rid of, like most of them got reinstated. But that was one of the main stories that was brought to the council people and why they seem to think that this was a good thing. This was an important law.
Alex Colvin 11:38
Yeah, so having that, a union that strong in the city made the real difference there in terms of being able to get that law passed. Which is, which is pretty interesting. When we think about the role of unions, they're, you know, there's a traditional role of unions where, you know, you collective bargain for your existing members. And it's kind of a more narrow role for unions. But there's this is interesting that, you know, it's a union taking that kind of broader approach in it's it's industry. Now do you see the unions being a big player in some of the other laws to pushing those through?
Juliana Reyes 12:12
That's a really interesting question because what we're like what I've been seeing in Philly is, unions are powerful, yes, but they only represent they represent a small fraction of the workforce. And there's been a lot of new organizing that is organizing what it's like not union, union organizing. And so, yes, we did see, so I would call it alt-labor. So yeah, so we did see a coalition of like alt-labor and more traditional labor. So the central Labor Council here, the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, supported Fair Workweek, supported the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. So they did, like throw their weight behind that. And I think that was important to show that to show sort of this, like broader, it's not just about unions, or it's not jsut about non-union workers like they can come together.
Alex Colvin 13:05
Yeah, that is a really interesting point. Because we we've seen nationally this kind of growth of the alt-labor movement, but at the same time, the unions have that kind of institutional, have, you know it's interesting that it was 32BJ because they are known as, as a relatively progressive union that's more open to working with other organizations. So you know, it's really interesting that they were they were a key actor in one of these bills, and that there has been this, the link to the alt-labor. Who are the alt-labor people in Philadelphia? Is there like an organization? Or is it like kind of an ad hoc thing? Is it, you know, is who is alt-labor there?
Juliana Reyes 13:43
Yeah, so there's a few different groups that work together. But there's like One Pennsylvania, and they really pushed for Fair Workweek. And then there's the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, and they're part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. There's a group called Jobs and Justice. So yeah, they're all very small sort of grassroots organizations like, and the funding landscape for these kinds of groups is hard, like, you know, like they don't get dues from members. So they're, they're really trying to fundraise. And so they're small but they've proven very mighty in Philly of late.
Alex Colvin 14:22
Yeah, so looking forward to are there other things that you see on the horizon in the Philadelphia area for worker protection. Any any other bills that look like they might be coming up in the next while?
Juliana Reyes 14:36
Yeah, well, so this is a little meta, but a really important part of this story about the worker protection laws being passed is the enforcement part of it. And I like as I cover this, like, I joke, we all joke like that, it's just so unsexy, like not very compelling story to talk about enforcement. But But these a lot of the alt-labor groups have, they basically formed like a coalition where they're pushing for stronger enforcement of these laws. Because basically, the office that was doing it, the mayor's Office of Labor was really small, really under resourced, and then suddenly, they got like all these new laws to enforce. And I did a story last year or two years ago now that basically showed that like, no one even knew about these laws, like no one was paying attention. No one was filing complaints. Like, there was no education that was being done. And so so that's like a big focus right now, for a lot of the alt-labor folks is like, how can we make a permanent Office of Labor that has like more resources? And how can we like hold the Office of Labor accountable to like really enforcing these laws?
Alex Colvin 15:56
Yeah, I think that's so important. It's it's a, it is a pretty unsexy area. I've written about this myself about government agencies, and how government agency work. But in worker rights, that actually seems to be one of the key things in determining whether you actually get the rights that are on paper is do you have an effective agency there? And actually, basic good government? Good organization of government makes a huge difference. So I think I'm probably on the right track, if they want to have their have their laws actually have the impact in practice?
Juliana Reyes 16:30
Alex Colvin 16:32
Well, maybe last question. You know, we've talked quite a bit about Philadelphia about what's going on at the city level. You mentioned at the beginning that, you know, there's some, you know, difficulties with, you know, the state law limiting what you can do in minimum wage at the city level. Has any of this stuff that's been going on in Philadelphia been spilling over to action at the state level, or I suppose, at the national level, but I particularly wonder if, you know, things have been happening at the state level in response, is there any kind of push there?
Juliana Reyes 17:07
It's complicated, because the Republicans have the majority in the state and they generally, and even though our governor is Democrat, and he, he advocates is advocating for a $15 minimum wage statewide, he's just seen, I mean, they've they've just not been able to come to any agreement on that over the last, I don't know how many years now. So I think that that might be the most prominent want, like, possible thing that could happen on the state level. But other than that, I mean, yeah, it doesn't seem like as much as much movement. I think one thing is that the building trades are very powerful, both in Philly and statewide. And so they've been successful in like passing through an E-Verify law on a state level, but and like that, in some circles might be talked talked about other worker protection law, but in other circles, it's really not that at all, so.
Alex Colvin 18:06
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think maybe that's part of the story as to why so much of the action is happening at the city level is, you know, states aren't responding to people's demands for additional protections at work, you know, the national levels, not responding to the state's not responding, they're going to turn to the local government. And maybe that's why we're seeing the interesting action going on at the state level. Well, thanks for taking the time to talk and tell us you know, what's been going on in Philadelphia. I think it's a really interesting story. And you know, I hope people are paying attention to it, because I think that's where it's actually affecting a lot of workers lives and hopefully improving their conditions at work. So thanks for telling us a little bit what's going on there.
Juliana Reyes 18:46
Thank you. Thank you for your interest.
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