Philly City Council passes bill to ensure jobs for laid-off hospitality workers

Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym.
(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed legislation Thursday giving laid-off hospitality workers first dibs on returning to jobs they lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation, which was supported by the hospitality workers union Unite Here, is the latest in a series of pro-worker bills passed by council during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nine months in, there are still 141,700 fewer hospitality and leisure jobs in Pennsylvania than there were before coronavirus hit, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bill supporters say that includes 12,000 people in positions such as stadium attendants, airport food workers and hotel cooks in Philadelphia.

“There are no hotels, or stadiums or Philadelphia International Airport, without these people,” said sponsor Councilmember Helen Gym. “They are the backbone of our local economy.”

The aim of the bill is to ensure that the pandemic, which has decimated the tourism, travel and entertainment industries, does not also erode the earning power of those workers long-term.

“This legislation protects our industry’s workers from any unscrupulous employers who might dare to use this pandemic to further their financial interests … at the expense of long-term employees who are overwhelmingly Black and are overwhelmingly female,” said Rosslyn Wuchinich, president of Unite Here Local 274.

The Black Workers Matter Economic Recovery Package includes three bills, one which would require employers to offer jobs that become available to laid-off employees in order of seniority; and two bills which buttress that protection in the event that a contractor changes at the airport or sports stadium, or if a hotel changes hands or goes into foreclosure.

The local hotel lobby, which originally registered dismay with the legislation, worked with Councilmember Helen Gym’s office to include amendments that called for workers to be recalled to the same department they left — in order to speed up the return and avoid the need for cross-training — and a sunset provision.

“It would be nice to have some help” for hotels, said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. “I’d like to get it to a point where there’s work to come back to,” he continued, while noting he believed many of his employers would have hired back workers without the legislation.

Aramark, which employs about 2,500 concession workers at the stadiums, also helped shape the final legislation.

“As a leading employer in Philadelphia, we support City Council’s goal of protecting workers and appreciate their willingness to listen to input from the business community on how to achieve that goal,” said Aramark spokesperson David Freireich.

Walt Barretts, who was laid off from the Sheraton Hotel in Center City, spoke in support of the worker protection package. “I raised my kids to be independent, and the last thing I want to do is be a burden on them,” he said, adding that in order to access a pension, he needs to keep his job.

The bill now heads to Mayor Jim Kenney’s desk.

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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