David and Goliath: Philly’s biggest businesses fight against two key workplace protections

A primer on the businesses and bosses working to stifle expanding worker protections in Philadelphia.

Who Runs Philly? is an ongoing project from Philly Power Research focused on highlighting the powerful people, organizations, businesses, and interest groups that shape Philadelphia. In the lead-up to the May 2019 primary, we’ll be paying special attention to who’s spending big in local races. This post focuses on the businesses and organizations that have put significant resources into fighting  the passage of some of Philadelphia’s landmark labor legislation.To explore campaign finance data on your own, check out our tool: The Philadelphia Campaign Finance Data Explorer.

Worker protections like the Fair Work Week and Philadelphia’s wage theft bill are landmark legislation that put more power in worker’s hands and more money in their pockets. However, these protections were not won without pitched battles against some of the city’s largest campaign contributors and biggest businesses. Ensuring that effective enforcement of these laws is a key aspect of delivering justice according to the Alliance for Just Philadelphia.

Who has stood in the way of expanding labor rights to workers in America’s poorest large city? This week Philly Power Research dives into the big business interests whose goal it is to keep wages low and workers rights from eating into exorbitant profits. We found:

  • Key opponents of labor law expansion include the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, (who represent many major publicly traded corporations and universities at City Council and in Harrisburg) the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, and large publicly traded service-sector businesses like Aramark and Comcast.

  • The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobby made up of Philadelphia’s biggest businesses, gave nearly $34,000 to elected officials in Philadelphia from 2014-2018.  

  • Lobbying expenditures by large Philadelphia based corporations and their political associations totaled $122,335 dollars in 2018. This money was given to city council candidates and the Mayor in the same year that low-wage workers in Philadelphia were fighting to pass the Fair Work Week legislation for greater protections around scheduling.

Wage Theft: An epidemic robbing Philly workers

The average annual cost of all robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts in the U.S. amounts to about $14 billion. This, however, is nothing compared to wage theft, which costs victims about $50 billion annually. Wage theft comes in many forms- from not being paid for all hours worked, being forced to work off the clock, failure to send final paychecks, and not paying overtime for work performed over 40 hours per week. Average losses per worker were $51 out of weekly payments of $339 dollars nationally.

According to the findings from Community Legal Services, there are 93,000 instances of wage theft in Philadelphia, including overtime violations, shorting hours, and minimum wage violations. Philadelphia employees who are victims of wage theft are estimated to have lost 15% or more their paychecks. This means low-wage workers lost about $51 – $87 per week out of each paycheck. Throughout Pennsylvania, employees lose anywhere from $19 million to $32 million each week due to wage theft.

Prior to the passage of the wage theft bill in 2015, the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, a consortium of hotels, spent $18,700 in direct communication lobbying in the second half of 2015 for bills that included the wage theft bill.

Declared lobbying meetings with City Council members leading up to the Fair Work Week bill.

Declared lobbying meetings with City Council members leading up to the Fair Work Week bill.

Fair Work Week

Fair Work Week’s passage in December 2018 requires employers to give 2 weeks notice for scheduling and pay workers extra when their schedule changes within two weeks of it being posted by their employer. Representatives from the Convention and Visitor Bureau, Aramark, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association testified against the bill in October of 2018. The bill was opposed by all 3 Republicans on City Council.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, lead by Target CEO Brian Cornell, spent $5,308 lobbying around “scheduling practices” according to the city’s lobbying database. Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association, who has fought worker protections all over the nation, spent nearly $10,000 in campaign contributions in 2018.

While the bill ultimately passed,  the Chamber of Commerce spent $15,061 that year in direct communication with city elected officials according to the city’s Board of Ethics. Aramark, who’s contracting practices with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have come under fire, spent $2,525 in direct and indirect communication lobbying in the latest reporting requirements ahead of the spring 2019 Democratic primaries.

David Oh, Derek Green, Kenyatta Johnson, Helen Gym, and Mayor Kenney were all part of this lobbying effort as disclosed.

Unsurprisingly, one of Philadelphia’s most high profile companies, Comcast, spent $99,440 in lobbying expenditures from July to December of 2018 at the peak of the debate over passing the fair workweek protections. City lobbying records list nearly all of these contributions as related to the fair scheduling bill. $8,250 was spent by Comcast on campaign contributions in 2018.

Contributions by Comcast Corporation and NBC Universal PAC

Contributions by Comcast Corporation and NBC Universal PAC

All in all, Comcast spent more than $100,000 on lobbying the city government in 2018. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts makes 301 times more than their average employee.

Moving forward: Expansion and enforcement

While all of these labor protections are now codified as law, vigorous enforcement is needed to ensure that employers comply and that workers are justly compensated and scheduled. As new worker protections like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights are fought for, we must ensure that adequate resources for monitoring and penalizing law-breaking employers is present and fought for. Strategic enforcement that constantly monitors high-offending industries has seen greater results than a complaint-based system.

Policy solutions from the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia include increasing dedicated staff in a fully funded City Enforcement Office, creating a Labor Standards Advisory Commission that includes workers to review the work of the Enforcement Office, advise the Council on design and funding of enforcement activities, and ensure that workers have an ongoing voice in policy enforcement. Finally, elected officials should be dedicating funding for Community-Based Enforcement, a proven strategy that enlists community organizations to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach to educate residents about their rights under city policies.


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