In a 7-2 vote on Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council passed a controversial bill that mandates employers to provide 30 hours of work a week to the janitorial staff in office buildings of at least 350,000 square feet.
The legislation was endorsed by a local union chapter for building service workers and several maintenance employees who testified in favor of the bill at a June 18 hearing.
But other businesses and economic groups — including the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and Bryant Foulger with the real estate firm Foulger Pratt — argued that the bill would increase operation costs for commercial buildings and raise vacancy rates across the county.
At issue were potential impacts on both building owners and janitorial employees. Council members acknowledged continuing concerns over vacant office space — a recent report listed a vacancy rate of 14% at the end of 2017 — and whether the bill would contribute to rising commercial leases as maintenance costs increase.
And while the legislation would benefit many janitorial workers by adding hours and benefits, county analysts also found that others would likely lose their jobs as employers pared down staffing. The regional chapter of the union SEIU 32BJ testified that union representatives worked with Washington, D.C., on similar legislation, creating layoff lists for part-time workers who lost their jobs and could not be transferred to different buildings.
Employers agreed to hire new employees from that layoff list, according to the union’s testimony. But some council members argued that the bill ignored workers who may choose part-time hours to accommodate other work or care for their families.
“I’m troubled by this legislation,” said Council Member Sidney Katz, who voted against the bill. “My concern is for the people who will lose their positions. And I think simple numbers show that employers are likely to reduce their staff.”
The specificity of the bill was also a concern for Council Member Andrew Friedson, who voted no on the bill. A self-described “procedure guy,” Friedson said he worried about the council passing what he called “extraordinarily prescriptive” legislation without fully understanding its future impact.
“I’m concerned about the appropriateness of county government establishing a mandate for the private sector that is extremely prescriptive to one specific industry and one specific class of worker,” Friedson added in a phone interview on Wednesday. “To me, that is a significant policy perspective change, and it’s one I’m having trouble getting comfortable with.”
The council’s Health and Human Services Committee made several amendments to the bill before referring it for a final vote. Many changes attempt to mitigate possible downsides to the legislation, including greater maintenance costs and possible layoffs.
The final bill mandates employers to provide 30-hour weeks to most janitorial staff, but does allow them to reserve up to 30% of available hours for part-time employees working at least 20 hours a week.
The legislation is also limited to buildings with an occupancy rate of 50% or more — an effort to minimize its impact on new or transitioning offices, according to a report by county analysts. When the bill goes into effect at the beginning of 2021, roughly 32 buildings will be affected, a small segment of the county’s commercial space.
Still, council members appeared to grapple with the bill before its passage. The legislation would provide an undeniable benefit to “one of our most vulnerable segments of workers,” said Council Member Gabe Albornoz, compelling employers to provide better hours and health care benefits to hundreds of workers.
Roughly 1,200 part-time cleaners live and work in Montgomery County, according to union data.
Janitor Alexandra Burgos testified in June that many commercial property owners mandate part-time hours to save on labor costs. Without health insurance, she has to travel to the Dominican Republic to see a doctor, and struggles to pay bills on part-time hours alone.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if I have an emergency,” she said through an interpreter. “I’m always on the verge of losing the roof over my head.”
But the county’s analysis also laid out a string of possible negative effects, including job losses and higher rents.
“It is likely that some workers will be laid off by employers who will be forced to use less workers for more hours,” the staff report reads. “… Employers who must pay additional health insurance premiums due to the bill are likely to increase their bids for building maintenance work, possibly leading to increased rents. Increased rents may lead to increased office vacancies.”
“This wasn’t an easy bill,” Council Member Craig Rice said during the meeting on Tuesday. “But we have to make sure we present these workers with opportunities that allow them to take care of their families.”