Majority of City Council supports giving laid-off tourism workers first dibs on jobs

Under the banner of “Black Workers Matter,” councilmembers announced a slate of proposed changes to help hospitality workers regain jobs lost to COVID.

downtown Philadelphia

The view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel. (Katie Colaneri/WHYY)

More than half of Philadelphia City Council supports legislation to give out-of-work tourism and hospitality workers their jobs back as the economy recovers from coronavirus shutdowns.

COVID-19 has pummeled the hospitality and leisure industry nationally, leading to mass layoffs at hotels, airports, restaurants and event spaces. In Philadelphia, the number of passengers flying through PHL is less than half of what it was a year ago, and the travel and tourism industries lost more than 70,000 workers between March and July.

Under the banner of “Black Workers Matter,” Councilmembers Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas and Kenyatta Johnson announced a slate of proposed changes at a press event Wednesday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most travel accomodations workers are Black, Asian or Latino, and advocates fear they could face discrimination in hiring for race and age after a prolonged period of unemployment.

The Travel and Hospitality Worker Recall and Retention Ordinance, to be introduced by Gym, would allow laid-off employees from city hotels, event centers and the airport first dibs to return to their old jobs if companies start rehiring. The order of recall would be based on seniority.

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Another ordinance, which will be introduced by Thomas, would require any hotel which changes ownership to extend employment opportunities to workers employed during previous ownership.

A bill from Johnson would expand the definition of employees to include seasonal contract workers.

“There are no hotels, no stadiums, no Philadelphia International Airport without these folks making it happen each and every day,” said Gym.

Hospitality workers cheered the proposals.

“It’s like they pulled the rug out from under us,” said Stephannia Swain, a former cook at the Warwick Hotel in Rittenhouse Square who was laid off when food and beverage operations closed at the beginning of the pandemic.

Businesses expressed dismay at the prospect of additional hurdles to reopening.

“We haven’t heard from the city councilmembers who are introducing the legislation, however we are working diligently to get their constituents back to work in their hotels,” said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. “Bills like this will make it much harder to do so.” The 10-day window for employees to respond to a recall, for example, is burdensome, said Grose, and could hurt business.

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At least 10 councilmembers have signed on to the measures ahead of introduction on Thursday, more than enough votes for passage. The bills are the most recent example of city officials backing pro-labor policies during the pandemic. Earlier this year, City Council provided workers protection from retaliation if they report violations of COVID-19 regulations in their workplaces. Last month, it voted to extend paid sick leave for people working in the city.

Both were greenlit by Mayor Jim Kenney.

The hotel and leisure industry is expected to recover especially slowly from the current recession. Pre-pandemic, these industries made up 11% of the workforce nationally; during the pandemic, hospitality and leisure have accounted for 36% of all job losses, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Some experts caution that a return to full employment could take until 2023.

Right-of-recall legislation has gained traction during COVID, with several cities in California passing local laws. Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation that would have extended the right of recall statewide, saying it would hurt the already suffering hospitality industry, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Similar language is often included in collective bargaining agreements, although it may sunset after a predetermined period. Some employers have already voluntarily extended a promise to recall workers to their jobs when possible.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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