A vote for Philly’s Fair Workweek legislation is a vote for decency

Too many people in this country have a big problem with the folks they consider the Other.

They're the folks who don't look like them, behave the way they would, think thoughts they agree with, or worship in ways they find familiar.

Over four obscene days in October, we saw the worst of what can happen when contempt for the Other overpowers reason, respect, and humanity.

The massacre of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The mailing of pipe bombs all around the country. The murder of two shoppers in a Kentucky supermarket, just because they were black.

My social media feed has been jammed with exhortations to counter all that contempt with soul-restoring acts of civility and fairness in our own communities.

Be good to each other, they say. Be compassionate toward friend and stranger alike. It's the only way to embody the decency that Americans are supposed to be known for.

Well, allow me to get the Decency Train rolling.

There's a bill about to come up for a City Council vote that would go a long way toward dismantling indecent treatment of some of the most disrespected workers in the city: The 130,000 men and women who toil in Philadelphia's retail, food-service, and hotel industries.

It's called the Fair Workweek Scheduling bill. You'd take a giant leap for decency if you'd call your Council representative and ask him or her to vote it into law on Nov. 29, when the bill comes up for a vote before the full Council.

If passed, Fair Workweek would require companies with more than 250 employees and more than 30 locations to give workers their schedules 10 days in advance, and pay them if changes are made after the fact.

It's the decent thing to do. How can anyone manage life without that kind of predictability?

Yet that's the reality for so many of Philly's retail and food-service employees, most of whom are among the working poor, earning minimum wage. They spend their shifts making our hotel beds, picking up the clothes we leave on the dressing-room floors of our stores, or bagging our burgers at fast-food places we hope our own kids will never have to work at.

Symphony Hurst, a 24-year-old single mom from Overbrook, is one of them. In the retail and food-service jobs she has held, she has never known definitively how many work hours she'd be given or on which days she'd work them.

So she couldn't accurately schedule day care for her daughter, Allena, 5, or even know whether she'd earn enough money that week to pay a sitter at all. She once lost her chance at full-time employment at a department store when her manager – who'd been impressed by Hurst's hustle and teamwork as a part-timer – went frosty when she learned Hurst was a mom.

Since then, when Hurst applies for a job, she says, "I try to withhold the fact that I'm a mother. When employers hear they have a mom employee, they side-eye her and assume that if they give her 30 or more hours a week, she won't come in because she has to take care of her child.

"But if moms like me got consistent hours, we could adequately plan for whatever may come up for our children."

She finally found consistent hours at a Starbucks at Philadelphia International Airport, where she currently works. But it should not have taken her years to find such reasonable accommodation. As she spoke, I thought of how frequently we demonize people like Hurst – young, unwed urban mothers – as lazy or irresponsible, or a drain on the taxes that harder-working folks pay to keep society afloat.

And yet there they are, trying like mad to create lives that will deny those stereotypes while the structure of their employment scheduling pretty much guarantees they'll fail. And so they stay mired in the 25 percent of Philadelphians who live in poverty – the highest rate for any American city.

That's not just indecent. It's cruel.

The Fair Workweek bill, if passed, will show 130,000 employees that they matter, they're needed, and they're worthy of the basic dignities their better-paid bosses enjoy: Respect for their time, regard for their circumstances and fair compensation when either is compromised.

Because Philadelphia's retail, hotel and food-service workers are not the Other. They're Us.

To learn more about the Fair Workweek Bill, click here.

To find the name and contact information for your City Council representative, click here. Urge members to vote on Nov. 29 to approve passage of the Fair Workweek bill 

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Posted: November 5, 2018 - 5:00 AM
Ronnie Polaneczky @RonniePhilly | polaner@phillynews.com