Philly law to mandate paid sick-leave moves forward

Strep throat. A broken rib. A broken foot. Diarrhea. The flu. Severe sunburn.

Those are the illnesses restaurant worker Jason McCarthey has suffered while on the job as a waiter and bartender, unable to miss a day’s work because he needed the money and received no paid sick days.

“With a bad sunburn — there’s flakes of skin falling off your face in people’s food,” he said. “Diarrhea — it’s a concern, no matter how many times you wash your hands.”

McCarthey, who said at his current job he is able to call out sick when necessary, was testifying Tuesday before a City Council’s Public Health and Human Services committee on a Paid Sick Leave bill that may soon become city law.

Restaurant workers at the hearing testified that few paid sick days are offered in their industry.

McCarthey said he’s seen employees so sick that they vomit in the kitchen. In flu season, there are almost certainly restaurant workers working every day, he said.

“Right now a lot of people are sick, working in restaurants and preparing food,” he said.

Former McDonald’s worker Raphael Curtis, 23, said workers need the money, so they just come in no matter how sick they are.

“We have to choose between keeping our germs out the kitchen and making a day’s pay,” he said.

Curtis also testified that he saw a fellow McDonald’s worker threatened with termination for asking to call in sick. While working sick, after being ordered by a manager to stop visiting the bathroom, she defecated on herself, he said.

“Is this what humans deserve?” Curtis asked. “Not only is it dehumanizing, its obviously unsanitary. This isn’t right. Workers, especially food-service workers, should be able to get better and not lose precious pay. We should be able to keep our germs away from customers.”

Jonathan Deutsch, director of the Drexel University Center for Hospitality and Sports Management, said such conditions are common.

“Many restaurant workers work while sick in fear of lost income or even a lost job. I’ve done it myself,” Deutsch said in an email. “Working while sick is a public health hazard and paid sick leave should help to mitigate that. … I’d encourage restaurants to be proactive in letting employees know that their jobs are not in jeopardy if they have to call in sick and offering some paid leave if feasible.”

But Philly business representatives testified that they fear the bill will hurt businesses.

“It stifles the competitiveness of our city,” said Al Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, who said he believes more regulations would make businesses less likely to come to the city.

“Sick leave has always been a private agreement between the employer and employee or collective bargaining unit to be worked out. It’s never been mandated,” he said.

Melissa Bova, of the PA Restaurant and Lodging Association, said that some hotel chains in her organization estimated the new law could add $250,000 a year to their costs. Her association supports the bill but has some concerns.

“The language is vague… it says to provide notice if you’re going to be calling out sick. What’s reasonable? Is 30 minutes before your shift starts reasonable? Is 3 hours reasonable?” Bova said, saying that specifics like a seven-day notice before a scheduled doctor’s visit would be helpful.

Councilman Bill Greenlee, who sponsored the bill, said the bill could be changed if it causes unforeseen problems.

“It’s been past time to do it,” Greenlee said. “I understand the concerns, but I think we have worked them out.”

Greenlee stressed that the bill would offer workers one hour of paid sick leave for every 40-hour week worked.

“You earn it. I think its less likely you will have abuse of it because if they had to earn it, they’re not just going to use it frivolously.”

The bill will get an official reading at City Council Thursday and will move to a vote at Council on Thursday, Feb. 12.

Council previously passed a sick-leave bill in 2011 and 2013.

Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed those bills “due to concerns about the slow progress of economic recovery following the Great Recession and the potentially negative impact that such legislation could have,” according to his office.

Last year, Nutter convened a paid sick leave task force, which submitted a report in December in part recommending that companies provide paid sick leave.

Nutter now supports passing such a bill.

“Mayor Nutter believes that the time for paid sick leave has come,” Nutter’s chief of staff Everett Gillison testified at the hearing Tuesday.