The D.C. Council is weighing new labor bills that, if passed, would cement the District’s ranking as one of the most progressive labor markets in the country, advocates say.
The council’s Committee on Business and Regulatory Affairs on Wednesday heard witness testimony on proposals that would establish a minimum work week of 30 hours for building-service employees, and would require District employers to post work schedules at least 21 days in advance and provide compensation for shift changes.
Rasimani Diggs, a part-time employee at Marshalls in Columbia Heights, told the council that a minimum work week and a set schedule would allow her to help her family while furthering her education and career goals — something she has put on hold as she struggles to make ends meet with two part-time jobs.
“Right now, life is a bit hard. I was told I would get 20 hours a week when I started, but I almost never do,” said Diggs, who added that “it wasn’t easy to request the time off to come and testify.”
Economists, social work professors and labor union leaders testified that fluctuating work weeks destabilize families and create stress for both parents and children. Retail and restaurant workers often arrange child care and travel miles to get to work, only to be told they’re not needed, experts said. And unpredictable schedules make it difficult to take classes, keep up with expenses, satisfy parole requirements or get a bed in a homeless shelter.
“It has become very clear that an individual’s work schedule is much bigger than a workplace issue,” said Nikki Lewis, the executive director for D.C. Jobs with Justice, a worker-advocacy group that worked with the committee chair, Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), to draft the legislation.
Each bill has eight council co-sponsors, representing a council majority. If passed, the District would become the second city in the country, after San Francisco, to establish such regulations. Lawmakers in seven states have proposed similar bills.
But restaurant and retail representatives who testified before Wednesday said the proposals could be disastrous for the city’s ongoing growth. Retail and restaurant establishments are subject to naturally fluctuating periods of demand, which call for flexible employee scheduling, they said.
Mandating 21-day advance scheduling for the retail industry was so “ill-conceived” that it would “make D.C. the worst place in the nation for retailers to do business,” said Joe Rinzel, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents major retailers such as Target and Walmart.
“This proposal will take D.C. backward,” he added.
District lawmakers have struggled in recent years to enact policies that protect longtime residents against the mounting economic pressures of a city on the rise. While several District neighborhoods have seen rapid makeovers and skyrocketing home prices, many residents say they have found it difficult to keep up with the cost of living.
The council has set new requirements for minimum wage and worker sick leave, but council members, including Orange, who back the proposed bills said the new legislation is necessary to continue to guarantee worker livelihoods in a changing environment.
On Thursday, the council will hear testimony on an additional labor rights bill, the Universal Paid Leave Act, which would allow for up to 16 weeks of paid medical and family leave for employees in the District of Columbia. That bill, like the two under discussion Wednesday, is supported by a majority on the District’s left-leaning council.
D.C. residents could also be able to vote this year on an initiative to raise hourly minimum wage to $15 an hour. The city’s minimum wage is $10.50 after rising a dollar last summer; it is scheduled to increase to $11.50 this year.
But business representatives argued that the combination of progressive measures is simply too much.
“We just don’t know if one of those further requirements on businesses is going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, especially when they all come at the same time,” said Andrew Kline, who testified on behalf of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
Orange, however, scolded Kline and others in the business community for being too extreme in their assessments.
“Businesses have grown and prices are skyrocketing, and yet the employees get left behind?” Orange asked. He suggested that retailers and restaurateurs be more “realistic” and work toward finding a compromise.
“Since we’ve raised the minimum wage, how many businesses have gone out of business?” he asked the group, which did not respond. “And since we’ve given workers five days of sick leave, how many restaurants have gone out of business?”
In many ways, workers said, the pending Building Service Employees Minimum Work Week Act of 2015 and the Hours and Scheduling Stability Act of 2015 also represent a larger, ongoing battle for full-time employment in a national economy where companies often limit workers to part-time hours to avoid the added costs of providing health insurance and other benefits.
Juan Jose Pinera said his wife has been cleaning the World Bank headquarters for more than 17 years — but has only been allowed to work four hours a day, despite repeated requests for more time. Without full-time employment, he said the family has been unable to obtain health insurance and is sometimes unable to afford his wife’s blood pressure medication.
“Full-time hours would change my life,” said Justino Gomez, another cleaner at the World Bank, who said he has worked there since 2005 and has struggled to support his family. “When we ask for full-time hours, we are not asking for charity. There is plenty of work in our building to justify full-time hours.”