Philadelphia's top elected officials aren't happy to hear their city called an economic basket case, run by out-of-control local lawmakers who ought to be restrained by state government so business owners can create jobs, like they do in faster-growing places.
Next week, a state House committee in Harrisburg plans to review a bill that would stop the city and other Pennsylvania towns from passing local labor laws imposing city rules on private-sector employers. Mayor Kenney and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke see this as a threat to the city's special laws, passed since 2015, that give "essential protections for women," and for racial and sexual-orientation groups, they wrote in a letter to Republican legislators reviewing the proposal earlier this year.
City laws to protect contract workers, restaurant workers whose tips get "skimmed" by grasping bosses, employees in places insulated by dangerous asbestos, pregnant workers, and ex-offenders, face invalidation, they wrote. So would the 2015 law mandating paid sick-hours for companies with more than 10 employees. And city legislation requiring the city's own airport contractors to sign union contracts. Kenney and Clarke say the resulting worker protests could disrupt air traffic, at the airport they control.
And who are Pennsylvania politicians to lecture Philly about economic development? asks Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn. "We're actually doing really well, and are seeing positive job numbers and healthy, new business investment."
He cited American Airlines' expanding use of city-owned Philadelphia International Airport as a base for European flights; the Navy Yard redevelopment projects that after 20 years employ more than 13,000 at 165 companies with suburban-style free parking on a campus off I-95; and the Pew Charitable Trusts report that city employment has risen … to where it was back in 1991, before so many big employers left town.
That back-to-the-future sideways motion is not a standard all cities would brag about; but Philly is used to making due with small signs of progress.
And the Kenney administration is making the most of any sign that Philadelphia employment has ticked up lately — in the period coinciding with its proliferation of labor laws. I checked federal Bureau of Labor Statistics employment numbers. The feds say the city and its nearby Delaware County suburbs added 25,000 jobs in the year ending July 31, a 2.6 percent gain — faster than job growth in the wealthier suburban counties, and faster than all but three of the state's 17 other metro areas. (That's also faster than central metro New York or San Francisco, though still not as fast as Boston.)
What does a year prove? Philadelphia's big employers are schools and hospitals; its growth industry is tourism; its hiring trends tend to trail after the national average, which is more weighted to technology, finance, and factories, where Philly, once a leader, is now a lightweight.
But city leaders insist the modest, positive trend boosts their case that local labor laws don't really discourage large employers. Indeed, city labor laws have "enabled a strong economic engine in which workers and talent are varied," Dunn insisted. "The growth we're seeing isn't despite our local ordinances, it's because of them."
The business owners I hear from don't buy that. They see Councilwoman Helen Gym's recent proposal to force chain stores and restaurants to post work schedules two weeks in advance as naive, and not much help to the struggling retail and fast-food industries. They are frustrated by her view, as I put it, that local government's job should be to "get more people a bigger share of the action from those profitable employers that remain in town."
Bill Stillwell, a Philadelphia property manager who ran shopping centers in the Northeast and has long experience with struggling retailers and the city bureaucracies they deal with, put it this way: "Having run my own business for over 20 years, and having dealt with numerous government entities, I can tell you from first-hand experience that governments do not know how to run a business." Particularly City Council members, he added: Check their resumes.
Most bosses and workers have steady schedules, Stillwell said. If chain stores have a tough time setting schedules in advance, it's because franchisees and managers are under pressure to find people willing to show up at store and restaurant wages. But, he pointed out that the scheduling proposal exempts the chains' competitors — "mom-and-pop" stores with fewer than 20 employees, who are "the biggest offenders of this particular issue, because they run their businesses very lean, and overwork themselves" just to keep the doors open.