City Councilman Juan Ramos has introduced a bill that would require many Philadelphia electrical and telecommunications workers to get a license through a program that requires several years of work and study.
Supporters say such legislation is long overdue for public safety, but opponents say it amounts to a power grab by an already powerful union and could hurt small contractors and increase costs.
Licensing of electricians and telecom workers is not unusual. In fact, many states require it, though regulations vary greatly. But Pennsylvania has no such law, leading the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 to back legislation requiring it.
The legislation is still in committee and would have to clear many hurdles before becoming law.
John Dougherty, business manager of Local 98, said in a statement that he found it hard to believe the city did not license electricians who install crucial systems in homes and offices.
"The City of Philadelphia does, however, require that your dog be licensed," he added.
Opponents of the bill, including independent electrical contractors and the Communications Workers of America, which organizes telecom workers, see the proposal as little more than an attempt by Local 98 to drive more work to its members. Dougherty is a dominant civic figure who controls a large amount of political action committee money and runs a tight field operation on election day for candidates he likes.
The bill is "designed, basically, to help Local 98 carve out a little more of a monopoly over electrical work in Philadelphia and to make it harder for independent electrical companies to do business in the city," said Geoffrey Zeh, president of the local chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., a national association that supports awarding of contracts regardless of labor affiliation.
He said his group was not opposed to licensing. He argues that this bill would hurt people who learned the trade on the job, as often happens in family businesses. He also said it would hurt businesses that let unlicensed maintenance workers do minor electrical work.
Jim Dollard, safety director for Local 98, said the bill would exempt many maintenance workers and residential work not requiring a city permit.
Chas Burns, staff representative for the CWA, said he feared the bill's broad definitions would require many people doing telecom work to get electricians' licenses even though telecom installations are low-voltage.
Frank Keel, a spokesman for Local 98, said the bill "is about public safety - period."
Critics who accuse the union of a power grab are "guilty of the worst kind of self-serving gutter politics," he said.
Ramos, who has sponsored similar legislation that passed for sheet-metal workers and sprinkler-fitters, introduced this bill in December.
So many parties opposed the legislation as written, however, that two previous scheduled hearings on it - including one that had been set for today - were postponed. A hearing is now set for March 12.
Ramos said he introduced the legislation as a longtime union member who believed licensing would improve public and worker safety.
The bill would require anyone seeking to do electricians' work to complete 500 to 600 hours of classroom training and 7,000 to 8,000 hours of documented work on electrical systems. The number of hours varies depending on the type of work. Classroom and work criteria are similar for telecom workers.
Individuals or firms that violate the proposed law would be subject to penalties of $100 to $300 per violation. The city also could halt work and revoke a contractor's license for six months to three years.
Ramos said he expected Peco to be exempt because it fell under other parts of the city code. He said he was still discussing the bill with Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp.
Comcast would not comment. A Verizon spokeswoman said the company already required extensive training for its technicians and was concerned that the bill could increase its costs.
The legislation requires those interested in working as electricians or telecom workers to complete their training in a formal apprentice program, leaving some area educators to wonder what the legislation would mean for their graduates.
"We are concerned about placement opportunities for our students, and the reason is that most of our students are hired by independent contractors, most of whom don't have structured apprenticeship programs in place," said Kristen Rantanen, vice president of communications at JEVS Human Services, the social service agency that operates the Orleans Technical Institute. The institute graduated 77 people from its electrical program in the last two years.
Morris Kleiner, author of Licensing Occupations: Ensuring Quality or Restricting Competition, said licensing generally raised wages in professions that required it. But he said it was unclear whether licensing improved quality.
"By restricting supply," Kleiner said, "it drives up the wage."
Michael Lenherr, a licensed master electrician and president of the Independent Electrical Contractors Association in this area, said licensing could drive up prices enough to encourage homeowners to attempt do-it-yourself electrical repairs.
"You're just going to accelerate the problem of electrical fires done by unqualified personnel," he said.
But Dollard said licensing was necessary to raise standards in a city where electrical work was a frequent cause of fires.
The Philadelphia Fire Department in a statement said it supported the bill.
"Standardized training to perform work on electrical systems, in the department's view, will assist in reducing electrical fires," Executive Fire Chief Daniel Williams said.
Dollard also said licensing was necessary because Pennsylvania, unlike many other states, has failed to require it.
Current Philadelphia regulations require at least one person at an electrical firm to be licensed, but that person can hire anyone, regardless of experience, he said.
The bill, now in committee, would: Provide for: Licensing of many electrical and telecommunications workers in Philadelphia.
Required training: 500-600 hours of classroom work; 7,000-8,000 hours of documented field experience. (Hours vary depending on the type of work.)
Penalties: Fines of $100-$300 per violation; possible halting of work and revocation of a contractor's license for six months to three years.
Read an early version of the proposed bill at http://go.philly.com/electriciansEndText