City Council returns from recess to full agenda on busy first day back

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia City Council got back into action this week with the introduction of a flurry of bills and resolutions on a wide range of topics, and action on several bills that had been waiting for final passage since it broke for summer recess in June.

Among the bills that passed on Thursday was a Public Health Emergency Leave measure, requiring certain employers to provide two weeks of paid time off for issues arising from COVID-19, such as the need to quarantine or to care for sick family members.

The bill covers businesses with more than 500 employees or very small enterprises, such as gig work and in-home child care, if they don't already provide that kind of leave.

"As restaurants, college campuses, movie theaters, child care facilities and other public venues reopen, protecting these workers is critical to ensuring a safe reopening and limiting the spread of COVID-19 in Philadelphia," said sponsor Kendra Brooks.

The bill passed 16-1, with Councilman Brian O'Neill voting no.

Another bill, which proved to be controversial, adds certification requirements for sprinkler fitters.

The controversy is that the training is only available through the union. The bill was introduced by Councilman Bobby Henon, who is under indictment for allegedly using his office to benefit the electricians' union. Part of Henon's defense is he is unabashedly pro-union. He was not available for comment for this story.

Several Black non-union sprinkler fitters testified that they'd been turned away from the sprinkler fitters union, despite years in the trade.

"I don't see a lot of minority sprinkler fitters," said Joseph Dunlap, who said he's worked 25 years for a non-union shop with all currently required certifications. He told Council the bill would effectively leave him unemployed.

Lack of diversity in the city trade unions has been a sore point for council members for years. Still, the bill passed 16 to 1, with Maria Quiñones-Sanchez voting against it.

Council member Cindy Bass, though, said her vote was contingent on reassurances from the union president that training for the certification would be open to anyone who wants it, not just union members. 

"There's a lot of concern and a lot of worry but I do have the word of the president of the union," she said, promising to monitor the training. "If we find there is a problem, we can always come back and revisit this matter in the near future."

Two bills on police reform — one banning police from using certain physical restraints and another providing public input on the police union contract — did not make it to a final vote. Both were amended instead.

Before the recess, Council had approved a package of bills that the sponsors called the Emergency Housing Protection Act, including an eviction moratorium, a nine-month repayment period for back rent and a ban on late fees. However, those provisions expired August 31. The sponsors introduced new bills extending the protections through December 31.

Council president Darrell Clarke, with Sanchez, introduced an ordinance to transfer $10 million in seed money to the Poverty Action fund, a nonprofit Council helped create.

"The first funding initiative we'll be working on is an employment initiative to get people back to work as aggressively as possible," said Clarke. "We think one of the most significant things we can do is establish some opportunities for people to get back to work."

He said the initiative would be announced in the next two weeks. 

Council member Cherelle Parker introduced a bill classifying as a hate crime the misuse of 911 calls to threaten a targeted group — a la the infamous incident in New York's Central Park in which a white woman called police to retaliate when a bird watcher, who is Black, asked her to leash her dog.

Parker also proposed expanding a city ban on using credit reports in the hiring process to include law enforcement and financial institutions, which had been exempted.

Council appears destined to hold lots of hearings this fall. Various members called for hearings on using conflict resolution in schools, on addressing litter in the wake of COVID-19, on gun violence, on noise created by ATVs on city streets and on the state of the local business economy post-pandemic.