New City Council bill requires Philly employers to give paid family medical leave

Embattled Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon wants city employers to be required by law to provide paid family leave.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon

File Photo: Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

City Councilmember Bobby Henon wants Philadelphia employers to be required by law to provide paid family leave.

A family medical leave bill introduced by the Northeast Philadelphia councilmember on Thursday, at the first City Council meeting of the spring session, would mandate employers provide three months of paid time off for eligible workers who have to care for a newborn child, an ill relative, or are suffering from a long-term ailment themselves.

The bill would cover employers of 50 or more in the first year, 25 or more in the second and 10 or more in the third year. Smaller employers would be exempted.

Freshman Councilmember Kendra Brooks and Councilmember Helen Gym, who just started her second term in the chambers, co-sponsored the bill, which Henon has worked on since 2016.

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“It has been a trend across the country, even President Donald Trump enacted paid family leave for all 12 million federal workers in our country,” Henon said. “We want to ensure all citizens are treated equally when it comes to life events.

Henon’s bill, as currently written, would simply establish a mandate, akin to the local law requiring employers offer paid sick time.

But three months of paid time off would be substantially more disruptive to a business’s operations and finances than the 10 days of sick time, which is why the states that have created similar policies generally operate family leave as a social insurance policy, like social security and disability insurance.

Under those models, employers and employees both make a small contribution into the program with every paycheck. Then when the leave is taken, workers are paid out of that large pot. This spreads the risk across the economy, and allows even the smallest employer to be covered by it without the large costs being taken out of their bottom line all at once.

“Most of the progress and attention has been at the state level, but creating a mandate on employers on the municipal level for 12 weeks of paid leave is pretty rare at the city level,” said Vicki Shabo, an expert on paid leave with the New America Foundation.

Shabo said that the social insurance model is more pervasive, even the paid family leave bill in Congress would operate on such a system.

“Putting in place a mandate on employers, so that they guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave at 100% pay is essentially casting a fairly substantial cost to employers,” Shabo said.

Earlier iterations of Henon’s bill sought to emulate the social insurance model by pairing it with a hike in Philadelphia’s wage tax. But there was little appetite for such an increase, and so this proposal is for a simple mandate.

There is also a question of whether the city could administer such an insurance program. At the federal level, the Social Security Administration is already well-positioned to orchestrate a paid family leave policy, whereas state bureaucracies oversee unemployment programs. Philadelphia has no equivalent system in place.

An expanded Office of Labor at City Hall

The paid leave bill came before council along with a suite of other labor law reforms, including a charter amendment to make the nascent Office of Labor a permanent fixture of city government.

The Office of Labor was created by Mayor Jim Kenney and is responsible for enforcing the multiplicity of new local labor laws that have been enacted in recent years.

Henon, who is fighting federal charges in a case centering on alleged corruption within the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, has long allied himself with organized labor. Gym, another longtime labor ally who is tied to the more progressive service sector unions, is also pushing the charter amendment as a co-sponsor of the bill.

“Councilman Henon and myself are strengthening economic rights for the average worker in Philadelphia,” Gym said. “We put some really great laws on the books — like paid sick leave and the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights — our job now is to ensure those laws are enforced, that employers are good actors and that communities are educated about their rights.”

The other labor reforms introduced Thursday include a call for hearings on the off-the-books contractors that mirrors a badly timed legislative push last year that coincided with the culmination of a federal investigation of the councilmember.

The city’s Labor Office currently operates with a staff of six. Gym, Henon and the Kenney administration hope to win greater resources for upcoming budget negotiations.

Gym says she hopes its purview will be expanded.

“For the first time, we are seriously looking at housing sexual harassment complaints from other city agencies in this division,” Gym said.

City Hall has fielded several recent controversies over sexual misconduct within agencies including the police department.

The city’s Deputy Mayor of Labor Rich Lazer said the administration is working closely with Henon and Gym on the charter change effort.

“I think it’s really important to make this office an official part of the government, put it in the charter and make it a cabinet-level position,” Lazer said. “We want to enshrine these protections forever in city government.”

Henon’s final initiative is for an investigation into the so-called “underground economy,” his term for businesses that evade local regulations.

The councilmember’s previous efforts were stymied by the federal investigation into his alliance with Local 98, the influential union where he previously served as political director. He had legislation introduced on his behalf while he plead not guilty. 

But now Henon appears better situated to pursue this line of inquiry. He has been made head of the Committee on Licenses and Inspections, giving him power over which bills are heard, which he previously lacked.

WHYY 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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