Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
This week, City Council will consider five pieces of legislation written in response to this year’s devastating Market Street building collapse, which claimed six lives. While much of the proposed legislation focuses on tweaks to work-site regulations to avoid future tragedies, it also includes a controversial and far-reaching regulation that would require all construction workers to obtain special photo ID cards from the Department of Licenses & Inspections.
The “wallet-sized ID cards” would indicate that a worker had attended a 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration course on construction safety, training that would also be mandated by the bill for anyone working at any construction site in Philadelphia. While the bill has its positives, the ID requirement has generated broad concerns from builder’s associations, Philadelphia’s large immigrant communities and L&I itself.
James Engler, director of legislation for Councilman Jim Kenney, who sponsored the bill, said the legislation was aimed at clamping down on “unscrupulous contractors,” saying it would make it easier for L&I to shut down unsafe job sites.
“There’s no other way to do that,” he said curiously, adding that he had heard few concerns about the proposal.
But Erika Almiron, executive director of the immigrant-rights group Juntos, worries that the proposal would create needless obstacles for impoverished, undocumented immigrant laborers — especially when it comes to the cost of obtaining the cards.
“Most workers who are day laborers are not making a ton of money on any given day, so anything that is a high cost is going to be a concern,” she said. “We’ve seen immigrants and all kinds of people in this city who don’t have access to identification.”
Almiron added that while her group supported worker-safety training for all, it was “concerned” about the lack of details behind the mandatory ID-card provision.
“It all depends on what the requirements would be to obtain the cards,” she added.
But right now, those details are scant. Engler said Council does not yet have figures on how many laborers would be affected by the legislation, the potential fees for training and obtaining the cards, or the costs of implementing and enforcing such a requirement.
It was also unclear if workers would need to already possess a valid form of identification in order to apply for the worker IDs. An interestingly timed piece of legislation introduced last week by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez would allow the city to begin issuing municipal ID cards that could serve as proof of residency. While that bill was widely praised as a needed step toward integrating undocumented immigrants, Sánchez, who represents a district with a large Hispanic immigrant population, may also be fearful of blowback from constituents who might be unable to apply for worker IDs.
Engler insisted Council and L&I would work out all of these issues and determine a funding source for the worker ID program over an 18-month timeline for implementation, assuming the bill is passed.
But L&I, whose staff shortages and mismanagement many blame for the Market Street collapse, doesn’t seem to be sure of its own abilities to operate as an ID issuing authority.
L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams said, in Council testimony on the worker-ID legislation, that “these provisions are well beyond the department’s core enforcement capabilities.”
Williams also raised the specter of possible legal conflicts, saying, “federal law would preempt the city from carrying out the provisions.”
Meanwhile, the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia (BIA), which represents developers, called the bill “redundant,” noting that OSHA already issues its own training-certification cards.
“Forcing even workers sweeping up the job site to have the same training as a designated safety official is just too sweeping,” said Anne Fadullon, BIA vice president.
Engler noted there have been problems in other cities with workers forging the OSHA-issued cards, which do not feature photos of applicants. However, he also confirmed that no other city has gone as far as issuing its own photo IDs for laborers as a way to combat this fraud.
Reports have swirled that the bill is being pushed by the city’s building trade unions, who view the IDs as an avenue for L&I to crack down on undocumented workers, sometimes viewed as unfair competition.
“There are a set of unions that see undocumented workers as competition instead of a strength,” said Almiron. “We’re concerned when we see unions that have not historically supported immigrant workers trying to make legislation around this, and how this will impact our people’s ability to make money and put food on the table.”
Engler countered that the legislation was “something we have to do to ensure everyone, union or non-union, is safe on a job site.”
While Almiron agreed that all employees deserve a safe workplace, she said that the bill seemed to be more about clamping down on those at the bottom rather than those at the top.
“It should be on the people who are in charge of those sites to make sure their workers are trained,” she said. “I don’t think workers should be worried about carrying around ID cards.”
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