Confronted by Comcast's lawsuit threat, Kenney hesitates on wage discrimination bill

Mayor Kenney said Tuesday that he would let Comcast and other businesses up in arms over recently passed wage discrimination legislation meet with the bill's sponsor before deciding whether he would veto or sign it.

Not two hours later, though, the bill was back in Kenney's court after City Councilman William K. Greenlee said he had heard the businesses' concerns and still had no intention of changing course.

"I'm not a very good tennis player, but I'll lob it back," Greenlee said. "Obviously, the next official step is [Kenney's]. That's the way the system works."

The bill, which would ban employers from asking job applicants for their salary history, was passed by Council in a 16-0 vote last month. Kenney has until Jan. 26 to either sign or veto it. If he does neither it will automatically become law.

Advocates say the measure, which would be the first of its kind enacted by a U.S. city, would help address wage discrimination against women and minorities. They say the inequality starts early in a person's career, then follows when the applicant is to state their salary when applying for future jobs.

The legislation, introduced in late September, moved through Council quickly and faced little opposition. Rob Wonderling, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, submitted testimony in opposition to the legislation, but did not attend a hearing on it. When the bill came up for final passage - the designated time for the public to make a case before a vote - only one person testified, an advocate in support.

Shortly after the bill passed, Comcast lodged new complaints, in a call with the city's solicitor and then in a 25-page legal memo. An attorney hired by the company argued that the legislation violates the First Amendment by limiting employers' right to ask applicants about their salary history. He urged Kenney to veto it or risk exposing the city to a lawsuit.

"While my client and others in the business community who are considering a legal challenge do not want to appear confrontational in any way, it is important to note that a successful challenge . . . could make the city liable for a substantial award of attorney's fees," attorney Miguel Estrada wrote on behalf of Comcast.

The lawyer also suggested alternative legislation, which would essentially make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate in pay based on sex, but which lacks the specificity and penalties found in Greenlee's legislation.

Comcast senior vice president David L. Cohen and Wonderling met with Greenlee in his City Hall office for about an hour Tuesday.

Afterward, Cohen and Wonderling said they support the bill's intent but believe the legislation would be burdensome on business and not achieve the goal of closing the wage gap. They both described the bill as one restriction too many on a business community frustrated with increased regulations and taxes coming out of City Hall.

"It's an accumulation of activities by the city . . . and a whole series of pieces of legislation that inject the government, or have the government intrude into common business practices that are just creating a reputation for Philadelphia as being antibusiness," Cohen said.

Both said they had heard from scores of other business leaders who had similar concerns. A spokeswoman for the chamber later failed to provide specific names when asked.

Greenlee, after the meeting, said he was unmoved by the arguments.

"We agreed to disagree I guess," he said.

That puts the matter back in Kenney's hands.

A spokesman for the mayor, on the day the bill passed, said Kenney planned to sign it. This week, the spokesman said Kenney had yet to do so while the city solicitor reviewed the legal concerns.

On Tuesday, Kenney spoke in favor of the bill's intent but said he hadn't decided whether he will sign it. But he said he wouldn't look to veto the bill just because Comcast, one of the city's most powerful corporate citizens, was leading the charge against it.

"Comcast doesn't tell me to veto anything," Kenney said. "I mean, I didn't get elected by Comcast."

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@TriciaNadolny