D.C. hospitality workers who were laid off during the pandemic will get right of first refusal for their old jobs under legislation approved by the D.C. Council.
Many employers in the hospitality industry will soon be required to send job offers to workers they laid off during the pandemic as their jobs become available again, under legislation that passed a final vote in the D.C. Council today.
The Displaced Workers Right to Reinstatement and Retention Amendment Act was approved by the council unanimously despite pressure from the restaurant industry to vote down the bill. The measure, backed by the labor union UNITE HERE! Local 25, passed unanimously on an initial vote earlier this month, but the version that passed Tuesday contained significant amendments that respond to concerns from the industry.
The legislation requires owners of restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and retailers that had 50 or more employees as of March 1 — or Dec. 1, 2019 for hotels — to offer reinstatement to workers whose jobs they cut during the health emergency, once their positions reopen, effective Feb. 1, 2021. Workers would have at least three days to accept or decline the offer before the employer could hire someone else. The bill's requirements expire on June 30, 2023.
An earlier version of the proposal applied to businesses with 35 or more employees, and workers were granted 10 days to accept or reject a job offer. It also had a later expiration date of Dec. 31, 2024.
The measure does not entitle workers to the same wages they earned before they were laid off, and workers can still be fired after they're rehired. The protections do not apply to workers who received severance pay.
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who chairs the Council's Committee on Business and Economic Development, voiced the strongest criticism of the proposal until today's vote, saying that layering new regulations on local employers could send the message that D.C. is unfriendly to business as the pandemic has forced dozens of restaurants to close.
"Businesses that are currently struggling to employ workers today, I don't want to leave them with the idea that we're not sensitive to any more burdens that we place on them," McDuffie said during a breakfast meeting ahead of Tuesday's vote. He added that the bill could be viewed as a "solution in search of a problem" because many employers are likely to recall former workers anyway.
The influential Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, or RAMW, has made similar arguments, characterizing the legislation as "overburdensome and harmful."
"We disagree with the Council's support of these unnecessary operational hurdles," RAMW said in a mass message to members on Dec. 1. "During this time we need to focus on supporting restaurants, not imposing burdens that will make it more difficult for restaurants to operate, to keep their doors open and to staff back up to pre-pandemic levels."
The D.C. Nightlife Council, a trade association that represents bars and nightclubs in the city, called the measure "well-intentioned" but harmful for both businesses and workers.
"Encumbering business establishments with additional and significant regulatory requirements will only make it more difficult for jobs to return and workers to be rehired," the trade group said in a letter to lawmakers. "The single best way to ensure jobs for former employees and all industry professionals is to ensure that employers have a fighting chance to survive."
The D.C. Nightlife Council sought to apply the legislation to employers with 100 or more workers and eliminate a provision that requires businesses to comply with the law even if they undergo a change in ownership, among other revisions.
Mendelson received the industry's claims with skepticism, countering that the measure couldn't be burdensome if it's simply enshrining an existing practice into law. At-large Councilmember Robert White, Jr. said Tuesday that because the city recently approved a $100 million grant fund for hotels, restaurants, entertainment businesses and retailers harmed by the pandemic, requiring them to help laid-off workers isn't too much to ask in return.
"Yes, we are asking something of our businesses, but it is something we need," White said.
But lawmakers were receptive to some of the industry's concerns and adopted them into amendments approved Tuesday. Some business owners said giving workers 10 days to respond to an offer would prevent them from adapting nimbly to changing business needs, and that the rules should mainly target larger businesses that are more likely to have administrative professionals on staff to ensure compliance with the law.
Progressive organizations and labor advocates hailed the bill's passage Tuesday.
"This is a victory for District workers," said John Boardman, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of UNITE HERE! Local 25 in a statement. "Thousands of individuals now have the economic certainty that comes with knowing that there is a light at the end of this tunnel."
But Boardman lamented that the final version of the legislation omits workers at smaller businesses.
"There was no reason for this common-sense, non-burdensome request to devolve into a debate about supporting businesses at the expense of their workers," the labor advocate said. "Employees — the people who make businesses thrive — need to be continually at the heart of these discussions."
The legislation next heads to Mayor Muriel Bowser for her signature and the standard congressional review. The council is also expected to approve an emergency version of the measure that will go into effect immediately after it's signed by the mayor.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.