Philly City Council votes to expand protections for contract workers

The city is on track to expand labor protections for workers inside Center City office towers slated for renovation into residential buildings.

Keisha Hayes poses for a portrait

Keisha Hayes is a SEIU 32BJ cleaner and has worked at the Public Ledger Building in Philadelphia for 29 years. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Thousands of workers who keep Center City office buildings running may have more job security than ever after the Philadelphia City Council passed an expansion of the worker protection bill on Thursday.

The bill passed 13-2, with Councilmembers Jeffery Young Jr. and Brian O’Neill voting against it.

The bill now heads to Mayor Cherelle Parker’s desk. Former Mayor Jim Kenney pocket-vetoed the legislation last year.

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Each office building has contracts with businesses ranging from janitorial services to maintenance. While workers may stay cleaning the same building for decades, their employer is likely to change many times as new contractors are awarded bids from building owners.

The displaced contract worker protection ordinance already requires businesses with new service contractors to temporarily hire laid-off workers for at least 90 days based on seniority and previous role. After that, workers can interview for the job with the new contractor.

“The current ordinance, which protects workers only during a contractor switch, has been very successful in protecting the good wages and benefits that our members have fought so hard for in their contracts,” said Daisy Cruz, district director for SEIU 32BJ, the Mid-Atlantic District. “We need more stability, not less.”

The expanded protections include the same process when any building at least 50,000 square feet or larger is sold as the triggering clause — not just when the service contractor changes.

The goal is to include office buildings which are being converted into residential properties, said Councilmember Jim Harrity, the bill’s sponsor.

There are several office towers already doing just that: the Public Ledger Building, The Bellevue, the WCAU building and The former Morgan Lewis building.

Philadelphia Building Owners and Managers Association, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, the Diverse Chambers Coalition of Philadelphia have opposed the measure. But Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents 5,000 workers in the region, endorsed the bill.

The ordinance was celebrated by Union workers such as Keisha Hayes, who has cleaned the offices at the Public Ledger building near 6th and Chestnut streets for nearly three decades. The North Philadelphia native has worked in janitorial services since graduating high school, and the job helped her put two children through college and pay for private school for her grandchildren.

Hayes has been employed by dozens of cleaning businesses over the years but it’s been most chaotic over the past few months when six different contractors came and went.

Keisha Hayes poses for a portrait outside the Public Ledger Building
Keisha Hayes is a SEIU 32BJ cleaner and has worked at the Public Ledger Building in Philadelphia for 29 years. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“They’re not staying long because the building is transitioning to condos,” she said.

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Hayes has only kept her job as the businesses come and go because of the existing worker protection law.

The Public Ledger building is now mostly residential units instead of offices — there are only two cleaners left down from 22 cleaners.

“We used to clean the whole building, on this side there’s maybe four tenants left and they’re moving out frequently,” she said.

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