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Philadelphia Hopes to Become Next Major City to Pass Fair Workweek Legislation

For nearly three years, David Smith’s retail job provided a stable enough income for him to pay rent, child support and feed his family.

But when his 40 hours per week were unexpectedly cut down to 24 hours, things started to fall apart, he said.

“I’m facing eviction,” he told NBC10. “I’ve been in retail for 15 years. This, by far, was the worse I have ever dealt with.”

Smith, who is 50 years old, is just one of 130,000 service workers in Philadelphia, at least a quarter of which work part-time, according to the 2015 U.S. Census. Many of these retail and service industry employees face unpredictable schedules that change as often as the seasons.

On Thursday, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym introduced legislation to curb some of this uncertainty. The fair workweek ordinance would require a reasonable notice of schedules, at least 11 hours rest time between shifts, opportunities to work additional hours and provide for enforcement and penalties if an employer does not comply.

“Today is about not looking the other way,” Gym said. “This bill is about standards of dignity.”

The bill has seven cosponsors, including Democratic councilmembers Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez (7th District), Mark Squilla (1st District), Bill Greenlee (At Large), Bobby Henon (6th District), Jannie Blackwell (3rd District), Curtis Jones (4th District) and Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District).

The ordinance would specifically target large chain businesses in the retail, food or hospitality sectors that employ a minimum of 250 people and have at least 20 locations across the country or state.

It is part of a larger, nationwide effort that has already been introduced in San Francisco, Seattle and New York. Those cities passed similar legislation after increasing their minimum wage. Adding fair workweek standards was the logical next step, according to Rachel Deutsch, senior staff attorney for worker justice at the Center for Popular Democracy.

“Some companies are stuck in this philosophy that labor is the most malleable cost,” she said. “But there has been a ton of data that shows there are hidden costs to this business model that treat workers as disposable.”

One such study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley examined hourly employees at Gap clothing stores in Chicago and the Bay Area. The study randomly assigned two-thirds of stores to consistent schedules and one-third of stores to their regularly shifting schedules. Researchers concluded that sales were higher at stores where shifts largely remained stable from week to week.

Those same researchers also found, in a separate study, that many of Philadelphia's hourly wage workers experienced up to a 14-hour difference in schedules from week to week. More than 75 percent of employees surveyed wanted a more predictable scheduled, according to the study. 

"The portrait of Philadelphia service sector workers reveals that unstable and unpredictable schedules are the norm," the researchers concluded. "As we have seen nationally, the retail and food sectors in Philadelphia are characterized by low pay, insufficient work hours, and a lack of control over scheduled work hours."

But Philadelphia’s Chamber of Commerce, which opposed Gym’s bill before it was even introduced, called the legislation “yet another anti-growth out of sync initiative introduced in city council.”

“Under the guise of improving worker flexibility, this copycat legislation hurts the very industries where we are seeing growth—the very industries that have put Philadelphia on national and international business site selection lists and travel and tourism lists,” the Chamber of Commerce said in an emailed statement.

Smith, who worked at one of the largest retailers in the nation for four years, said sudden schedule shifts resulted in low morale and eventually led to him quitting his job. He also said that the local human resources department failed to properly handle a complaint he made regarding racist comments overheard on the store’s loud speaker.

Smith’s team leader told him that his hours had been cut back because the holiday season ended. Extra workers were not needed. However, Smith noticed that new, part-time employees were being still hired, he said. It felt like retaliation.

“I want them to, first and foremost, have some respect ... for their employees because they are the backbone,” Smith said. “They try to say it’s mostly college students, but I worked with people that are 70 years old and are veterans. They are trying to provide for their families.”

In 2014, San Francisco became the first major city to pass fair workweek legislation. Seattle, New York City and the entire state of Oregon followed.

New York’s bill came on the heels of the city passing a $15 living wage, which will go into effect next year. Like Philadelphia, the majority of New York’s hourly workers were struggling to make ends meet. The problem with unpredictable schedules is “income volatility,” a leading driver of poverty, Deutsch said.

“You don’t know if you’re going to pay rent the next week,” she said. “Sometimes, people get thrown off [assistance] vouchers if their hours shift. Or retail employees work a lot during holidays and then drop off in January and suddenly can’t afford child care.”

Philadelphia has already passed legislation aimed at creating a more stable work environment for residents. In 2014, Philadelphia passed a bill requiring that city contractors receive at least $12 an hour. Then, in 2015, the city passed a mandatory paid sick-leave bill.

Philadelphia's fair workweek bill will likely go to vote when city council resumes in the fall. 

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