From words to practice: implementing Philadelphia’s new wage theft ordinance

Each week, hundreds of thousands of workers across Pennsylvania are paid less than they are owed, or are not paid at all. This troubling fact comes from a 2015 report from the Sheller Center, which also found that federal and state agencies lack sufficient resources to enforce these workers’ rights.

Could legislation at the local level help fill the gap? Advocates for low-income workers thought so. Last year, citing the Sheller Center report and other data, they urged Philadelphia’s City Council to take action. Council responded by unanimously enacting an ordinance establishing penalties for wage theft and creating a new office of Wage Theft Coordinator.

Passage of the ordinance was a big step forward — but then came a host of questions about how to implement it in practice. Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Daniella Lees and Crystal Felix, working with Community Legal Services, tackled those questions last spring. Their product: an extensive set of guidelines for the City and its new Coordinator.

As Ms. Lees and Ms. Felix recognized, enacting a law is one thing; making it work effectively for real people is another. “The most difficult task,” Ms. Lees observes, “was figuring out how to make the new ordinance accessible to and useful for victims of wage theft. This involved considering the needs of individuals with limited English proficiency, recommending a community outreach program, and proposing approaches such as conciliation conferences.” The guidelines also address such issues as how the city should determine which complaints to accept, and what standards should be used in the adjudication process.