Philly has a ton of worker protection laws. But do workers actually know they exist?

It’s not easy to spread the word about employee rights, so the city is looking to community partners.

Sinta Penyami of Modero&Co is working with Philadelphia’s new Office of Worker Protections to educate he Indonesian community about labor law

Sinta Penyami of Modero&Co is working with Philadelphia’s new Office of Worker Protections to educate he Indonesian community about labor law

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY
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Philadelphia has quickly become a national leader in the realm of worker protections. Lawmakers have passed a raft of labor laws over the last half-decade, and last year voters approved giving labor issues a permanent wing within city government.

Today, having a job in Philly means mandatory paid sick leave for full-timers. It means domestic workers can bank sick time between employers, and are guaranteed rest breaks. It means certain workers laid off in the pandemic have first dibs on their old jobs.

But what good are all these laws if people don’t know they exist?

That’s likely the case for thousands of working Philadelphians — and City Hall knows it.

The newly revamped Office of Worker Protections, formerly known as the Office of Benefits and Wage Protection, is trying to bridge the awareness gap.

“The laws are no good if they’re just written and housed in [a legal publication],” said Amanda Shimko, the office’s director. “That’s not where workers actually learn what their protections are.”

Operating under the city’s newly formed Department of Labor, the Office of Worker Protections has two main functions:

  1. Receive and investigate complaints about labor law violations
  2. Educate people about their rights if they work in Philly

With an annual budget near $1 million, the seven-person office includes Shimko, four investigators and two outreach coordinators. Investigators look into complaints — and have power to take action against noncompliant employers by revoking business licenses.

For that to happen, the team needs workers to know their rights, and then feel comfortable enough to file a complaint.

People most likely to be victimized by crimes like wage theft often fear coming forward, Shimko said. This could include domestic workers, factory workers, minimum wage earners, and undocumented workers in any industry, all of whom might face language barriers, be worried about retaliation or harbor fear of government.

So the team is going into various communities to find partners. Despite the pandemic last year, they managed to host 47 know-your-rights events, engaging more than 900 residents in nine languages from Haitian Creole to Khmer.

‘They don’t understand there’s such a thing as paid time off’

The city’s paid sick leave law went into effect in 2016 — but plenty of people have never taken a single sick day.

That’s the case for one Indonesian woman who’s worked full-time for 15 years, said Sinta Penyami. Founder of Modero&Co, an Indonesian grassroots cultural organization and dance studio, Penyami is one of several community leaders coordinating with the Office of Worker Protections to help spread the word.

“Language has always been the biggest barrier in the community,” Penyami said. “They don’t understand that there is such a thing as wage theft, or that there is such a thing as paid time off.”

Philly government isn’t equipped to educate tens of thousands of workers — and just doesn’t have the needed trust to get the word out effectively, said Candace Chewning, a Dept. of Labor communications director who manages the community outreach team.

Volunteer community liaisons like Penyami help tackle the language gap, but they also play a more important role.

Philly is home to about 6,000 Indonesian immigrants, and Penyami now serves as a bridge to inform them of their rights as workers. She provides trainings, encouraging workers to come forward and file a complaint if they’ve been shortchanged.

When talking to people who may have been victims of labor law violations, fear of retaliation or government involvement can quickly lead to silence, Chewning said.

“It doesn’t matter how much I tell them we don’t ask for identification or a social number,” Chewning said. “But it does matter when their church leader tells them, or their community leader who gives them a food box every week tells them.”

Sinta Penyami runs Modero&Co, an Indonesian dance studio and community cultural organization. She’s working with Philadelphia’s new Office of Worker Protections to educate Indonesian workers on labor law. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Penyami's Modero&Co is an Indonesian dance studio and community organization

7 worker protection laws you should know in Philly

Here’s a rundown of the most prominent labor protection laws that the Office of Worker Protection is administering and enforcing. More info on these laws can be found here.

Wage theft

Since 2016, workers can file a complaint of wage theft directly with the city, instead of with the federal government. City officials will help mediate a solution with the employer.

Paid sick leave

Since 2016, all full-time workers and most part-time workers in Philadelphia are eligible for paid sick leave, accruing one hour for every 40 hours on the clock. Lawmakers amended the sick leave law last year to provide new protections for certain workers whose jobs put them at risk during the pandemic.

Domestic workers rights

In effect since May 2020, when Philly became the first U.S. city to enact a measure like this, the law protects the city’s roughly 16,000 nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers. There are anti-discrimination protections, requirements for written agreements with employers, and mandated break time. The law also established a portable paid time off system for domestic workers, who often accrue hours across numerous gigs.

Fair Workweek

Since the start of 2020, the Fair Workweek law has required advance scheduling notice for service and hospitality industry workers. It also outlines minimum rest time between shifts, among other benefits.

‘Just Cause’ for parking workers

This law, which went into effect in 2019, prohibits employers from wrongfully terminating any of the 1,000 or so people who work in the parking industry. All firings now require proof of reasonable grounds and evidence to back them up.

COVID-19 whistleblower protection

This law, passed in 2020, prohibits all employers from firing workers who speak out about unsafe working conditions during the pandemic.

First dibs for furloughed workers

This law mandates that once the city’s hotels, event centers and airport start rehiring, they must first offer terminated or laid off workers a chance to return to their old jobs.

How to report a violation or get involved

To report a violation of city labor law, go here and locate the specific form for the offense.

Want to help spread awareness and increase enforcement of worker protection laws in your community? Email Candace Chewning at candace.chewning@phila.gov, or fill out an inquiry form here.

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