Fast food and retail workers rally for a 'fair workweek' in 2018

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Hundreds of low-wage workers are asking Philadelphia lawmakers for financial help as the coronavirus outbreak decimates their already tenuous livelihoods. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration says the money isn’t there.

Dilcia de la Cruz, a part-time cleaner at Aspira Charter School in North Philadelphia, said she doesn’t know if she has a job anymore now that schools have shut down.

“They told us we don’t have to go to work, and now we don’t know if they’re going to pay us,” she said in Spanish, to a “crowd” of nearly 400 people on Thursday night.

The “town hall” gathering was held virtually on the digital conferencing app Zoom, creating the socially distant alternative to showing up at a protest at City Hall. Bodega cashiers, house cleaners and Uber drivers were among those who spoke to the 10 of 17 City Council members in attendance.

Their ask of the lawmakers: Set up a $5 to $10 million relief fund to help low-wage earners who don’t qualify for immediate public aid, let alone benefits like paid sick leave.

The e-meeting came hours after the U.S. had officially recorded more positive cases of COVID-19 than any other nation in the world. The Philadelphia region is at a near standstill as the city enters its second week under a stay-at-home order.

The lockdown has left tens of thousands of lower-wage workers jobless — with little hope of public aid.

While sympathetic, the Kenney administration said the organizers’ demands would strain the city’s already stretched budget.

Furloughed school cleaner Delcia de la Cruz said she does not qualify for unemployment.

Workers’ demands ‘far too high’ for Kenney

The fund, pitched as a public-private partnership, wouldn’t be the first of its kind. Similar relief endowments for gig workers have already been set up in New Orleans and New Jersey.

Many of Philly’s low-wage workers can’t access federal and state unemployment benefits, especially if they are undocumented, the town hall organizers noted.

Annie Johnson, a member of the Domestic Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, said those who are still working feel like their lives are at risk.

“I’m an essential worker: I am a nanny,” Johnson said. “People like myself who leave our homes and our families daily to make all other jobs possible are the first to feel the weight of this pandemic.”

Some of Johnson’s colleagues fear traveling on public transit to work and contracting the virus. Others have been told to no longer report to their employers’ homes, as anxieties heighten around social contact.

Philadelphia has passed some of the most cutting-edge protections for workers in the nation. In recent years, workers’ groups have built up punching power among the city’s powerbrokers in a political corner that has long been dominated by the traditional building trades unions. In the voting booth, left-leaning, worker-friendly groups are now perceived as a threat to even the most established incumbents.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks, a Working Families Party candidate who swept to a historic electoral victory last year, said she feels the pain.

“I too have been a domestic worker,” Brooks told the virtual audience. “I’ve been a gig worker. I’ve done so many of these jobs before — and when I say I’ve done it, I mean like a year ago before I ran for office. Every day since the beginning of this pandemic, I’ve been reflecting back, a year ago, how would this have affected my family?”

Councilmember Kendra Brooks spoke at the low-wage workers’ virtual town hall.

Brooks and nine other colleagues attended the town hall hours after the legislative body advanced an $85 million spending package for the city’s coronavirus response. Not in attendance at the town hall: Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilmembers Allan Domb, Brian O’Neill, David Oh, Bobby Henon, Curtis Jones and Cherelle Parker.

In light of the crisis facing workers, one councilmember present suggested stonewalling all legislation unless it directly aids workers.

“We as a Council can use this as an opportunity to say, if we don’t pass worker protections for everyone who’s affected, then we’re not going to pass anything out of Council,” Councilmember Cindy Bass told the town hall attendees. “This is the moment to get that done.”

Mayor Kenney’s administration has fast-rigged several emergency relief initiatives. One was a A $6.5 million public-private fund to support nonprofits on the front lines of the crisis. Another $9 million fund will provide microgrants and zero-interest loans to small businesses that have been devastated by forced closure.

However, the Kenney administration says the city’s $5 billion budget can’t handle the added burden of a fund to rescue low-wage workers.

“The amount of money that would be needed to provide these workers with meaningful compensation is far too high for the City-even with the possible generosity of foundations or other donors-to handle on its own,” said city spokesperson Lauren Cox.

Cox added that the city will continue to lobby the federal government for aid to help “the largest number of individual workers as possible.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...