Philly Council committee advances paid leave bill for public health emergencies

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — City Council is aiming to extend the city’s paid sick leave law to employees working during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But the proposal won’t get a final vote for months, leaving workers vulnerable.

A City Council committee on Monday advanced a proposed bill that would mandate businesses with more than 500 workers provide up to 10 days of paid sick leave for full-time employees and create a “portable benefits system” to calculate leave for workers employed by multiple companies.

The city’s proposal would cover workers shut out from the city’s existing law and the federal government’s emergency paid sick leave programs, including gig, health care and domestic workers, among others.

The city’s proposal, if passed, would expire on Dec. 31, to coincide with the sunsetting of federal paid sick leave law related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The legislation was on track to go before City Council on Thursday for first reading. Yet with no scheduled legislative session after this week until September, the earliest the proposal could be voted on is in the fall.

At-large Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, the main sponsor of the bill, said the proposal would particularly benefit people of color, who make up a majority of essential workers in Philadelphia.

“The simple fact is that while some businesses may not prefer to pay for any paid leave for their employees because of the financial strain of COVID-19, our business and our constituents cannot afford for workers to come to work sick,” Brooks said.

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The proposal won the approval of the Kenney administration but with caveats.

Richard Lazer, the city’s deputy mayor for labor, said the legislation would limit the economic fallout from the pandemic on workers and avoid burdening small businesses with more requirements.

Yet Lazer said the creation of a portable benefits system would take a “significant amount of time” and resources, and the city most likely could not impose sick leave requirements for health care employees paid through public funding, including Medicare.

“It is likely that the processes of developing this portable benefits program will take far longer than COVID-19-related emergency declarations,” Lazer said.

Some people in business rejected the bill.

Rocco Cima, a Philadelphia restaurateur for more than a dozen years, said the proposal was an “overreach” by legislators who have no experience in the restaurant industry. The effect of the legislation would reduce jobs, encourage automation and depress wages.

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“The bill’s timing is … kind of kicking us when we’re down and I believe this bill will actually eliminate jobs,” Cima said.

Jarred Make, vice president of A Better Balance, an advocacy group that campaigns for increased labor and employment regulations, said the proposal would fill the gaps for workers left out of the federal sick leave law.

“When workers go to work sick, they threaten their own health, their colleagues’ health, and the health of the community,” Make said.

The legislation underwent several amendments since it was introduced in May, including on Monday, leading to confusion among some of those testifying about the current version of the proposal. The changes to the bill included nixing a retroactive provision and limiting the proposal to only businesses with more than 500 employees.

Under the proposal, some employees could qualify for up to 14 days of emergency paid sick leave if they work more than 56 hours a week and meet other requirements. Eligible employees would also receive the emergency paid sick time immediately.

In April, the city tweaked its current sick leave law to allow workers to use their sick leave for coronavirus-related issues and preventative care. Yet the most sick days a worker could accrue under the law was five days.

During the hearing on Monday, Hemi Park said she was laid off from her restaurant industry job during the pandemic. While she was recently offered her job back, the hours were too limited and the health care provided there was unaffordable.

Park, who also is a student and has worked in restaurants for a decade, said she is uncertain about returning to the restaurant industry without paid sick leave protections.

“It’s an industry norm to be working when you’re sick and to risk getting fired when you call out sick without finding coverage,” Park said. “Taking a sick day is often viewed as a lack of loyalty, self-discipline and work ethic.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.