With Paid Sick Leave on Tap in Council, Restaurant Workers Get Free Flu Shots at Jefferson
Calvin Okunoye has worked in the restaurant industry for the last 12 years and says he’s had every sort of job in the business he can think of. Most recently, after studying classical French culinary arts, he’s worked as a sous chef, executive chef and pastry chef. About a year ago, he got sick with a stomach virus just as he was beginning a new job. He was hospitalized without insurance and, he says, when he got back to work, was told by management that he wasn’t pulling his weight. “I basically lost my job,” he says, “for calling out.”
He later joined the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization in the city focused on the rights of restaurant workers, and is currently working there as an outreach coordinator, building relationships between workers and restaurants. “The flu season’s really bad this year, and a lot of restaurant workers are uninsured,” he adds.
Okunoye and several others took time off Tuesday to head to Thomas Jefferson Hospital, which, along with ROC, is sponsoring free flu shots for restaurant workers in the city. The effort comes at the beginning of Restaurant Week, during which the less-well-to-do get the chance to sit down at one of Center City’s more-well-to-do restaurants for a meal that’s priced less extravagantly than usual —e.g., a $35 per-person meal before drinks, tip and taxes is presented as a deal compared to the regular price. It’s a popular event that’s been running for 10 years.
According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, 95 percent of restaurant workers lack paid sick time off — and about 60 percent of those workers have reported working while sick. Lots of us have done that, sure, but the difference is they’re working with food. Not to put too fine a point on it: our food. In the midst of a flu epidemic.
Okunoye says most of the people he’s worked with during his 12 years in the business have worked sick. “At one point or another,” he says, “absolutely. Unless someone has worked in the industry for less than three months, there’s a point in time where they decide working sick” is the only option available to them.
“This is not just a restaurant workers issue. It’s a public health issue,” said Dr. James Plumb, director of the Center for Urban Health at Thomas Jefferson University, in a news release. “Most restaurant workers don’t have the option of staying home sick, so prevention is key to maintaining the health of workers and customers.”
Tuesday’s effort was also meant to draw public attention to a new Philadelphia paid-sick-leave bill that’s set to be introduced by Councilman Bill Greenlee tomorrow. Greenlee previously introduced and passed a paid-sick-leave bill through City Council (by one vote) in 2011; it was later vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter. This go-around, the bill again has support from local community organizing groups including Fight for Philly and Action United — and it’s also got massive opposition. The local Chamber of Commerce and large businesses throughout the Philadelphia area believe that allowing paid time off for part-time workers will result in fewer jobs and less pay for employees. When PW spoke several months ago with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association’s CEO, Patrick Conway, he noted that restaurant workers are already free to avoid working sick by swapping shifts, and that more regulations on businesses in Philadelphia may force business out of the city.
The Center for Urban Health’s senior health educator, Neva White, suggests that isn’t good enough. “You don’t want people to come to work sick,” she says. “You’ve got to give people the opportunity to help themselves, and if we don’t allow people to get taken care of, in the long run we are going to pay for it — through hospitalizations, through passing on things to other people, infecting each other.” Sick-leave legislation, she says, “just makes sense from a proactive standpoint, really.”
The 2013 Paid Sick Days bill will be introduced in City Council tomorrow, Thurs., Jan. 24. It has six co-sponsors, including Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilman Curtis Jones, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Councilwoman Marian Tasco and Councilman W. Wilson Goode, Jr. Community groups will hold a press conference before it’s introduced in Council, as well.
“It’s a never-ending battle until every restaurant worker is not put in a position to choose between their health and work, or between rent and public safety,” says Okunoye. “When we can comfortably say that, I think that’s where we need to be at. None of us know exactly where that is, but we’re working toward it.”