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Credit: Kylie Cooper

If there is anything to be learned from this time of rampant unemployment and violent protests, it is that our lives are fragile and our institutions are fallible. The pandemic and police brutality against Black Americans highlights the need for policy that outlives political cycles — policy that has staying power even as the world becomes a world that we do not know. Furthermore, the global crisis has emphasized that our society relies deeply on the strength of its workers, and that the laws that protect them in return often fall short of their sacrifice. 

In the upcoming June 2 election, Philadelphia residents, many of whom display signs in their windows thanking essential workers, will have the opportunity to support these workers at the polls. Voters will be asked whether they believe that Mayor Jim Kenney’s Office of Labor should become a permanent Philadelphia Department of Labor. A 'yes vote on this ballot question means amending the City Charter to protect and more widely enforce the labor laws passed under the Kenney administration.

Since Mayor Kenney took office in 2016, he has enacted several policies to advance the rights of low-wage workers residing in the poorest big city in the U.S. He campaigned for employers with over 10 employees to provide paid sick leave to their workers. Amid 93,000 wage theft cases — namely failure to pay workers overtime or underpaying minimum wage — in Philadelphia,  he passed an ordinance to make wage theft illegal. He introduced the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights to ensure that non-unionized workers, such as nannies and house cleaners, received fair contracts and were paid for overtime work. Most recently, he instituted the Fair Workweek Law that requires employers to give workers advance notice of schedules, to provide compensation for any last-minute scheduling change, and to allow rest time between shifts. In combination with these laws, the Kenney administration passed the 21st Century Minimum Wage law which will increase the minimum wage for city workers to $15 over the next four years.

The Office of Labor was created in an effort to enforce these new labor policies — providing economic security to workers across Philadelphia. In 2024, Mayor Kenney’s term will expire and the future of the Office, along with all the workers it protects, will be subject to the discretion of a new administration. While enormous progress has been made to create laws that give protection to workers, the Office is now in need of its own protection. Philadelphia depends on the safety and well-being of its workers, and all voters must vote to create a department that supports this end.

Along with an established Department of Labor being independent from the political agenda of any one mayor, the new institution would legitimize existing policy and allow for greater funding for labor reforms by being included in the budget determined by the city council. In other words, the new title would not only be a symbolic move to prioritize workers, but a practical one. The ballot question follows the lead of many other U.S. big cities who have voted to establish permanent institutions that enforce labor laws and educate workers on their rights. One such city, Seattle, established a permanent Office of Labor Standards in 2015 and has since returned $6 million to 10,000 workers on the basis of investigations into wage theft and minimum wage violations.

Under the Penn arms, the symbol of the University, is a motto in Latin that translates to, “Laws without morals are useless.” This is undoubtedly true. Unfortunately, Penn has also demonstrated that laws without enforcement are just as useless, as the University continues to underpay its security guards. Mayor Kenney’s minimum wage law dictates that security guards working at four-year higher education institutions receiving public subsidies should be paid $15/hr, and yet the average wage for security guards at Penn is still $12.78. While Penn does not directly employ security guards, they share a contract with Allied Universal Security Services and are still subject to changing minimum wage law. The city has reacted to Penn by threatening to suspend its nonprofit water discount, which amounts to $1.2M in subsidies. 

Penn’s complacency to pay their staff appropriate wages is only one small piece of a larger issue — to focus all of our energy as individuals on change.org petitions and other grassroots activism will only get us so far. We need government-backed institutions that can do the heavy lifting. We need a Department of Labor to not only respond to violations against workers, but to prevent them.

As our economy regenerates and we take down the signs in our windows thanking essential workers, it is easy to forget who went to work while others stayed inside. It is easy to forget that many of these workers risked their life to earn a minimum wage that is not livable for most Americans. And it is easy to forget that labor injustice takes place within our own beloved academic institution. The solution is complicated, but it is also attainable. It starts with voting 'yes' to a Department of Labor on June 2.

Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.

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