Protections for Philly parking industry workers advance at City Hall

32BJ SEIU members demonstrate at a residential parking garage in Center City. (Courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

32BJ SEIU members demonstrate at a residential parking garage in Center City. (Courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Two City Council bills aimed at regulating labor practices in Philadelphia’s parking industry advanced easily at a hearing on Monday.

One bill would require that industry employers show “just cause” before they fire or sharply reduce the hours of a parking facility worker. The bill seeks to provide protection from retaliatory job loss but would still allow firing for reasons of economic necessity, dereliction of duty, or failure to perform satisfactorily.

The other bill would require the Department of Licenses and Inspections to establish minimum staffing standard for parking garages. Both were introduced by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker with the backing of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The union is in the midst of an organizing campaign at Philadelphia parking facilities.

Workers in the union’s trademark purple shirts packed Monday’s hearing. Two high-ranking members of Jim Kenney’s administration  — Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Dave Perri and Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer — also spoke in favor of the bills. The bills are expected to receive first reading this Thursday. That means Council could pass them as early as next week and the mayor could sign them into law point before the May 21 primary election for mayoral and City Council races.

While support for the bills appears united across City Hall, the business community raised loud opposition.

The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and other private-sector opponents testified against the bills and raised concerns about “just cause” labor legislation spreading to other employment sectors.   

“Although the overly prescriptive ‘just cause’ provision is targeted at the parking industry in this bill, it is only a matter of time before other industries are added and it becomes the general law protecting all private employees in Philadelphia,” said Rob Wonderling, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Parker responded to opponents with reassurances that she would work to help business owners as well — after the labor-friendly legislation passes.

“I’m here today to protect workers in this very specific industry, but I am also committed to working with the industry to reduce its tax burden,” Parker said.

For years, garage magnates like Robert Zuritsky of Parkway Corporation have pushed for tax relief from City Council, to no avail.  

According to Zuritsky, half of every dollar paid to parking garages goes to the city in the form of various fees and taxes, effectively creating an industry tax rate that is higher than New York and other cities.

“Parking is the highest taxed industry in Philadelphia,” said Zuritsky on Thursday. “But 50% of the city’s tax base comes from jobs in Center City and West Philadelphia and if those areas don’t have adequate parking, the city risks ending the successful run we’ve had. If enacted, these bills would further endanger our overburdened industry.”

The bill is moving rapidly through City Council. Parker introduced the legislation just 10 days ago. The hearing itself unfolded in a strange fashion, as the members put testimony on hold to allow for the committee to vote for the bills (which both passed unanimously) before hearing from Zuritsky and a number of pro-regulation workers.

Though business representatives tried to argue that the “just cause” bill would be unlawful, other similar laws have withstood court challenges. For instance, the entire state of Montana instituted “just cause” employment laws in the 1980s and the laws have held up against numerous oppositional efforts.

Zuritsky focused his comments on the parking industry’s tax burden and vulnerability. He said that the workforce has shrunk by 300 employees since 2015, and tallied the current job count at 2,200.

The drop in workers has accompanied a larger contracting of the industry, he said. Total parking spaces in the city have been reduced by 10,000 parking spaces in the last decade, with 1,500 lost each year since 2015, he said. A number of factors have contributed to that loss of parking, including Center City’s real estate boom, which has incentivized parking facility owners, including Parkway, to develop parking.

Council Members Parker, Helen Gym, Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, and Derek Green voted for the bills. Committee members Brian O’Neill and Allan Domb did not attend the hearing, while Al Taubenberger left before the vote.

Gym said the “just cause” bill was firmly in the tradition of the paid sick leave law and the fair work week law she got passed at the end of last year.

City Council also recently passed a “good cause eviction” bill that raised the bar for landlords seeking to oust tenants.

“We have to expand the power of local municipalities to establish the protections that our state and federal government are not doing right now,” Gym said. “We are keeping people at the mercy of a market that is unforgiving and geared solely toward profit. We have a right and responsibility to ask ourselves what more we can do.”

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