It’s been almost a year since Philadelphia’s City Council passed a lengthy COVID paid sick leave policy, sparking a bipartisan split in the vote and alarming businesses and interest groups who feared their members would be unduly burdened.
The law requires employers with 25 or more workers to provide up to 40 hours of additional paid time off for COVID reasons including illness, exposure, and shuttered child care. Passed last March, the policy runs until December 2023.
Business owners came out in strong opposition to the legislation and its original language, which required the regulation for businesses with 10 or more employees.
“That would have been devastating,” said Whitney Harris, who runs a Philadelphia-based human resources consulting agency called Wolford HR. Harris operates HR services for clients spanning industries from restaurant to accounting who employ around 270 workers between them.
“My clients treat their employees with care and if they need the time off, we do what we can but to be mandated,” she said, “would have been a struggle.”
Blane Stoddart is a construction administration and project management business owner who said he employs 22 people full time and works with four additional consultants. Referring to himself as a “small minority business owner,” Stoddart said he was against the sick leave legislation.
“What City Council has done is taken away the power and the ability and the freedom of employers to work with their employees based on their needs,” Stoddart said. “I don’t need a law” to treat workers with honesty, dignity, and respect, he continued.
Instead, said Harris, it’s the larger companies that deserve more regulation.
Ryan Nissim-Sabat is an organizing director at the airport with Unite Here Local 274. Union members held a protest against the airport’s largest food service provider, OTG, which they said has failed to sign or acknowledge a bargaining agreement regarding, among other things, paid time off.
“In our experience, what we found is that employers, in particular employers at the airport, don’t share this information with their workers,” Nissim-Sabat said. “Hospitality workers are on the front lines, dealing with the repercussions of COVID.”
Among the biggest concerns for workers’ organizations and for the office of Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who introduced the COVID sick time legislation, is that workers may not know they legally have access to paid time off. Information barriers are especially acute for Spanish-speaking workers in industries without traditional paid time off cultures, like restaurant and hospitality.
“There’s definitely a lot of work to be done for people to know about the initiative,” said Carly Pourzand, an organizer with political and social organizing group 215 People’s Alliance.
El Comite de Trabajadorxs de Restaurantes, a subgroup facilitated by 215 People’s Alliance, is working on those barriers.
Between 2015, when the city first instituted paid sick leave requirements, and September 2020, workers reported 109 total violations, according to Obafemi Matti, a spokesperson from the Office of Worker Protections. Since COVID-specific leave policies have been put in place, that number more than doubled to 230 violations.
There were almost three times as many complaints in the first six months of 2021 than in the entire previous year, the spokesperson said.
Ben Fileccia of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, an interest group that represents the food and drink industry, said his members were alarmed by the legislation’s original language, which extended the policy to businesses with 10 or more employees. Those kinds of companies, he said, are usually already operating on razor-thin margins. Increasing the business size helped ease apprehension from his group’s members, he said.
“Since that law was passed, I’ve received two messages,” Fileccia said of the March 2022 legislation. One was from a restaurant owner who wanted to post a flier about the policy.
Fileccia said he’s not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. On the one hand, maybe employers and their workers are navigating the protections successfully.
On the other, he posited, they may not even know it exists.
A spokesperson for the Office of Worker Protections, inside the Philadelphia Department of Labor, said staff at the office engage in “community and business outreach” to inform workers of their rights and employers of their responsibilities.
Brooks’ office is aware of challenges that exist in getting the word out about COVID sick time.
“The Office of Labor doesn’t have a large budget, so they’ve been doing as much as they can,” said Alison Stohr, a representative from Brooks’ office. They’ve also partnered with legal organizations like Community Legal Services to spread the word, she said, “but we’re also talking about doing more outreach … because our concern is that not enough people know about it.”
For Nissim-Sabat, the responsibility falls on companies.
“The real problem is that the employers are not notifying their workers about what rights they have,” he said.
Said Pourzand, even asking for paid sick time off in certain work environments remains taboo.
“Generally,” Pourzand said, “the restaurant industry is not trying to give their workers sick leave, and workers have to fight for every hour.”