Philly City Council may expand ‘displaced worker’ law despite business pushback

As office towers are retrofitted, residential buildings’ unionized cleaners in Center City say they worry about job security. But businesses say proposed changes go too far.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jim Harrity

A push to expand Philadelphia's displaced contract workers law is sponsored by City Councilmember Jim Harrity. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Keisha Hayes has cleaned offices in the Public Ledger building in Center City for the past 29 years.

When the building switched cleaning companies last year, Hayes thought her career there was over.

“When I came into work the next day, my coworkers and I were informed that our services were no longer needed,” she said. “I was told that I wasn’t even allowed to apply [for her old job].”

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But a call to her union — Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ — put pressure on the situation, and she was able to continue working at the building with a new contractor.

That’s in part because of a law on the books in the city of Philadelphia that requires companies to temporarily hire displaced contract workers when there’s a contractor change.

Now there’s a push to expand that law, which is sponsored by Councilmember Jim Harrity. It’s already passed through the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.

Philadelphia City Council will consider the measure, known as the displaced contract worker protection ordinance, in the coming weeks. If successful, it could wind up on Mayor Cherelle Parker’s desk this spring. Former Mayor Jim Kenney pocket-vetoed the legislation last year by simply not signing the bill into law.

The Parker administration did not respond to an interview request for this news story.

The proposed changes include the same worker protections for when any building at least 50,000 square feet or larger is sold. The goal is to include office buildings converted into residential properties.

That’s exactly what’s happening at the Public Ledger building where Hayes works.

Last September, the building’s owners applied for permits to convert some of the building to residential units instead of office space.

“They’re doing condos all around us. [Office] tenants have moved out,” she said. “We’ve got about three tenants left. By the end of this year, maybe we won’t even have a job.”

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The bill is opposed by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, the Diverse Chambers Coalition of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Building Owners and Managers Association. There’s even an email petition against the bill.

“The bill is sweeping and it’s sweeping our small businesses with it,” said Regina Hairston, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. “The voices of the smaller businesses are not being taken into consideration.”

For example, some businesses argue it’s unfair to force companies to hire existing service workers when they take over a contract. Building owners complain that the office market is weak, and sometimes the best-case scenario to keep the building out of foreclosure is to retrofit it into residential apartments or condos.

“We are facing some serious headwinds. Our industry is faced with tenant constrictions, inflationary pressures, skyrocketing insurance premiums as well as rising interest rates,” said Don Haas, co-chair of the Philadelphia Building Owners and Managers Association. “In some cases, sale or pursuit of an alternate path such as a conversion to residential might be the highest and best use.”

Haas asked the committee members to amend the bill to exclude any workers already represented by collective bargaining agreements — but the legislation was not changed.

At-large Councilmember Jim Harrity defended the bill he sponsored.

“The bottom line is what I’m trying to do is help some of our lowest paid employees in the city of Philadelphia,” Harrity said. “It wasn’t too long ago that we were praising them for the work they did during the COVID crisis. And now fast forward, it’s like they’re no longer needed. We’re just trying to give them a little bit of protection to keep people working.”

There are about 5,000 members of SEIU who either clean or maintain these buildings in Philadelphia.

“A lot of these buildings are being converted into residential,” said Daisy Cruz, district director for SEIU 32BJ, the Mid-Atlantic District. “We know that COVID has changed things and there’s less tenants in the buildings. We’re just looking into making sure that these workers do not lose their jobs.”

There are similar laws in New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., enacted in recent years.

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