Supervisor Gordon Mar has proposed legislation that would require employers to offer jobs back to laid off workers before hiring cheaper workers at reduced rates. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Laid off workers in SF could gain right to be rehired at same pay

Proposal amended to apply to larger businesses only

Tens of thousands of workers were suddenly left jobless in San Francisco when The City imposed a shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of the coronavirus in March.

Now, as businesses are beginning to reopen, many workers remain stressed out about whether their employers will hire them back. Many fear employers will use the deep pool of unemployed workers to hire new workers at lower salaries.

“Every time I talk to my friends and family I am asked if I am getting my job back and I have to say I have no idea,” said Tika Hall, a server for the past two years at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, who was laid off in March. “It is very stressful to be in this state of limbo.”

Hall is among those backing Supervisor Gordon Mar’s “back to work” ordinance, which would extend to workers a right afforded to many covered by labor union contracts.

“This ordinance is based on a clear, simple and moral idea that if you are laid off in an emergency, if and when your job becomes available again it should be offered to you before new applicants,” Mar said. “The cover of a crisis should not be used to treat workers unfairly, to replace longtime and senior employees with younger or cheaper alternatives.”

An employer that begins to rehire will have to first ask their laid off workers if they want their old jobs back. If they accept the offer, they will have to pay them at least at the same salary and benefits.

The Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee voted Thursday to send the proposal to the full board for a vote on Tuesday after making amendments to address concerns raised by the business sector, who argued it would hamper their efforts to reopen and adds a burden as they are struggling as well. Some business advocates have even threatened to sue.

Mar made concessions Thursday to try and gain the support needed as he is eager to pass the proposal next week as hiring is expected to pick up in the coming weeks.

One of the biggest amendments made was to reduce the number of businesses the requirement would impact. Instead of applying to those employers with 10 or more employees it was changed to apply to employers with 100 or more employees. The requirement applies to a business of this size who laid off at least 10 employees in a 30-day period since Feb. 25, when the city declared a local emergency to prepare for COVID-19.

“We are removing this burden for small business owners but also removing this protection for their workers,” Mar said. “This is a difficult decision and one we do not take or make lightly. We have been convinced of its necessity by small business stakeholders.”

The proposal has six supporters among the Board of Supervisors but needs at least two more to pass into law as an emergency ordinance. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sits on the committee, said he needed more time before saying he would vote for it next week to determine if the amendments addressed many of the concerns raised. Although he said he was “relatively certain” that the changes “go a long way if not all the way to meeting the concerns.”

Katie Hansen, a senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association, opposed the legislation Thursday and argued it would “undoubtedly delay the ability of restaurants to reopen, which furthers unemployment and leads to the loss of tax revenue to San Francisco.”

“Providing employees with between 2 and 10 days to respond depending on the manner in which a position is offered to them is unworkable for restaurant community employers,” Hansen wrote in a letter. “If there are 4 positions open, it can potentially take over a month just to hire those four individuals.”

She also said that “at a time when restaurants are trying to reopen and struggling to survive the detailed record keeping and noticing requirements are overwhelming and onerous.”

Mar made amendments including removing some of the most burdensome reporting requirements, but the legislation still requires worker notifications for rehire offers through email, text or mail, and reporting to The City.

The proposal comes at a time when the unemployment rate in San Francisco has shot up to 12.6 percent with 482,100 people employed and 69,400 unemployed and actively looking for work. In February, unemployment was at 2.2 percent.

For comparison, the highest the unemployment rate reached during the Great Recession was 10.1 percent.

Another way to measure the impacts on employees is by looking at the required Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications, or WARN notices, which are filed by businesses with at least 75 employees when they make significant layoffs or furloughs.

Since the local emergency was declared in San Francisco on Feb. 25, 352 WARN notices have been filed with The City impacting 38,994 employees, according to data presented by Joshua Arce, director of Workforce Development in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Since Feb. 25 352 WARN notices reporting layoffs or furloughs have been filed with The City impacting 38,994 employees. (OEWD Courtesy Art)

More than half of the impacted workers, some 19,352, are in the accommodation and food service industry. The second highest number of impacted workers are in the arts and entertainment industry at 6,866, followed by the 4,127 workers impacted in the retail industry.

“The biggest wave of those notices was received the week ending March 30,” Arce said. “Over the same time span in 2019, from Feb. 25 through June 5 of 2019, we only received 13 notices impacting 709 workers.”

Unemployment claims filed by those living in San Francisco since Feb. 25 reached nearly 160,000 as of May 30.

Arce said that a new employee hotline that OEWD has set up to respond to questions has taken about 4,000 calls since March, some of which he fielded personally.

“It’s a big question that folks have: if I’ve gotten laid off am I going to be able to return?” Arce said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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