Two opposing stories of hardship emerged Monday morning in Philadelphia City Council during a hearing on a package of bills that aim to protect parking lot workers.

There was Gina Cain, a 50-year-old grandmother who said her current job — making $7.65 on the overnight shift at a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia garage run by parking company Impark — is the lowest-paid job she’s ever had.

“It ain’t fair,” said Cain.

And there was Robert Zuritsky, CEO of parking operator Parkway Corp. and the president of the Philadelphia Parking Association, who said that his industry has been slammed by city taxes — 50 percent of every dollar brought in by the parking industry goes to the city, he said — and warned that the city would continue to lose thousands of parking spaces, and risk hurting its economy, if it continued to pass onerous regulations.

“I consider us on the endangered list in Philadelphia,” Zuritsky said.

It was a scene that has become common in City Council chambers as Council moves to pass more worker-protection laws as a way to fight poverty in the poorest big city in the United States: Workers speak of struggling to get by and fearing for their jobs, while employers and business groups talk about how they shouldn’t be penalized for the “bad actors” with measures that ultimately hurt the city’s economy.

A similar hearing on a larger scale occurred last year for the Fair Workweek scheduling legislation for retail, fast-food, and hotel workers that passed in December.

The beginning of a ‘just cause’ city?

This hearing focused on two bills introduced by Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker: one requiring employers to give “just cause” for firing workers and another requiring parking operators to submit to inspections regarding staffing levels. The bills come after nearly a year of union SEIU 32BJ’s industry-wide campaign to unionize parking workers in the city.

>> READ MORE: Will the next big worker protection bill — against unfair firing — pass in Philly?

A Keystone Research Center report estimated that there are 1,000 parking workers across nearly 200 lots in Philadelphia. Most are African American or immigrants from African countries. The report said half earn $9.50 an hour or less. Zuritsky, whose workers are about 10 percent of the parking workforce, according to the report, said the average salary at Parkway is $13.25.

Just-cause is a standard part of a collective bargaining agreement, and its corresponding legislation is on the cutting edge of worker protections around the country, with New York City considering a similar bill for fast-food workers. (There are also just-cause laws in Montana, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.) The otherwise standard American practice is “at-will" employment, under which employers can fire any worker at any time for any reason — or none at all.

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Marjorie McMahon Obod, an employer-side labor lawyer at Dilworth Paxson, said the bill set a “bad precedent."

“Right now, it’s the parking industry,” she said. “Next time it could be hospitals. ... It could be all industries that service Philadelphia.”

Parking workers and 32BJ SEIU members rallied at the Ritz Carlton after the City Council hearing on two bills to regulate the parking industry.
32BJ SEIU
Parking workers and 32BJ SEIU members rallied at the Ritz Carlton after the City Council hearing on two bills to regulate the parking industry.

‘No capacity to implement the bill’

Rob Wonderling, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed all the city’s worker protection legislation, said the city should not be passing laws that it can’t realistically enforce.

>> READ MORE: 7 groups chased Council members around City Hall to make a plea for more labor enforcement funding

The just-cause bill calls for a complaint-based enforcement process, where an unspecified agency would investigate if a worker alleged any violations. But the city’s Office of Labor Enforcement, a three-person unit housed in the Mayor’s Office that is slated to grow to five this summer, has struggled to educate workers and enforce the four labor protections currently on the books. It’s an issue that labor groups have banded together to advocate for this spring.

The city, Wonderling said, “has no capacity to implement the bill as drafted.”

At the end of the hearing, Parker said she had heard the concerns of the parking industry loud and clear and vowed to help it, too, after advocating for the workers.

“We will not abandon the industry,” she said, adding that given the tough nature of the industry, parking employers should make their employees their “allies, not their adversaries."

The Committee on Labor and Civil Service voted the bills out of committee. Next, the full Council will hold a hearing.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.