Paid Sick Days Fight Beginning Between Organizing, Business Groups
Two weeks after a scathing report about the Philadelphia restaurant industry was released showing local food service employees are getting the shaft, we were able to get in touch with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.
The PRLA is a group of restaurant owners and other business interests whose goal, claimed by their website, is “to promote, protect and improve the hospitality industry in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” And as such, they’re opposed to many government mandates on their industry’s owners, including an earned paid sick days bill that could be introduced into Philadelphia City Council later this fall.
Regarding the new report, which was introduced at Tequila’s Restaurant in Center City on October 10th, PRLA CEO Patrick Conway has a thing or two to say about the findings and the group behind it: Don’t believe the report’s hype, he says. The state of the industry is fine. And if a paid sick days bill is passed in Philadelphia, it will hurt the already-struggling local economy.
“We’ve seen this report before; even before it was introduced,” says Conway. “It’s the same template, different city; it’s the same thing [the Restaurant Opportunity Center has] done in D.C., New York and other cities.”
Behind the Kitchen Door, released two weeks ago by Philly ROC, is a 65-page report conducted by talking to restaurant workers and employers and using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to put local working conditions into perspective.
The information reflects a tone which argues restaurant workers should be provided paid sick days and a higher tipped minimum wage, among other things, using statistics regarding employees working sick because they don’t earn enough to take time off.
Conway says there are other ways around the problem than government mandates upon private industry. He says workers who get into the restaurant industry do so knowing they’re getting paid by the hour without benefits—because the job often comes with flexible scheduling and shift-trading with other employees.
“ROC has said that the employee will come in sick because they don’t want to lose the income. The truth is, [the employee will] make up that income when they trade with somebody else. You’re going to be sick one day and you work the following Friday when you trade with another employee for picking up your shift,” Conway adds. “It works out very well. So there’s really, I think, it’s a false notion that the industry has sick people coming in all the time to serve food to their patrons.”
According to the 580 restaurant workers ROC sampled, 65 percent say they have worked while sick and more than 90 percent lack paid sick days.
Philly ROC head Fabricio Rodriguez says he doesn’t necessarily disagree—“People swap shifts, right now in the industry. That’s the reality they live in,” he says, but adds: “What would be much preferable to trading shifts with somebody when they’re sick is taking the day off. What happens just as often as finding someone to pick up your shift is you can’t find someone to pick up your shift and you go in and work anyway … Almost everyone we spoke to who worked sick said, ‘I didn’t want to go. I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I thought it was a dangerous thing.’”
He claims that employees are often told by managers they’re not “sick enough” to skip work or just can’t afford to take the day off.
There are no reports which make claims to say anything within the Behind the Kitchen Door report is not correct.
“I think you can find anybody who will say [they are working sick],” Conway says. “I’m sure for each person who says they came in and served food while they were sick, there’s probably thousands of others who will say they’re opposed to doing that because they didn’t want to. And as a responsible employee, they worked with management to find another employee to cover that shift.”
Additionally, he says, nine of the 10 salaried employees in the restaurant industry (who have things like sick days, insurance and vacation) began as hourly wage earners.
Conway notes there’s a reason the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups—as well as eight Philly City Councilmembers and Mayor Nutter, last year—opposed the bill last year: Because, he says, it will drive businesses out of Philadelphia or stop restaurants from hiring new workers.
“[ROC] sort of comes along and sets up, pitches their tent in these various cities and comes out with exactly the same report and same statistics which are not scientific studies,” says Conway, “and claims that we are not taking care of our people. The fact is that these mandates do cost business owners and when you’re costing business, that has to be made up in some other way.”
Rodriguez notes—and had a similar response to PW last week—that “if they think our research is so canned and so unimportant, they’d probably have a better way of responding to it by now.
“I’m trying to get a hold of Mr. Conway,” Rodriguez continues. “We’d like to debate him, maybe have somebody go on the air with us. If he’s going to cast doubt on our report, then come out and show us what your information says. So far he hasn’t responded to our requests. Feel free to pass that word along if you talk to him.”