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Restaurant workers in Philadelphia and around the nation are facing a tough situation right now. The omicron surge is creating a staffing crunch, but restaurants are still economically reeling, and many people say they don’t feel comfortable calling out.

“No one wants that scarlet letter for calling out a restaurant that’s already struggling,” one Philly restaurant worker with a decade of experience told Billy Penn. Both restaurants they work at closed temporarily due to COVID-19 over the winter holidays, the person said.

Then there’s the question of what taking time off does to personal finances.

Since 2015, employers with 10 or more workers in Philadelphia are required to provide paid sick leave. But some workers say the policy isn’t made clear, and fear retaliation if they bring it up. Last month, the Philly-based Coalition for Restaurant Safety & Health did a small-scale survey. It found nearly 50% of city restaurant workers reporting they don’t have access to sick pay, with even more worried about broaching the subject with employers.

“There’s not a lot of people in service [work] that have a safety net,” said the manager of a popular Center City restaurant where multiple staffers recently contracted COVID. Like others in this story, they asked to remain anonymous to protect their job. “The sick pay thing for me is inherently flawed. It’s not bulletproof, it’s a bandaid on a gaping wound.”

The manager noted that for front-of-house employees, the required reimbursement for being out sick often doesn’t come close to covering what they usually make.

Tipped workers in Pennsylvania make $2.83 an hour as a base rate. For sick pay, it goes up to $7.25 per hour, the state’s minimum wage since 2009. But the manager said servers at her restaurant usually average closer to $20 to $30 an hour, after factoring in tips.

The Instagram page PA Food Workers, which sprang up near the end of 2020, recently asked restaurant employees to anonymously report on COVID protocols where they work. Some workers said management isn’t being transparent when their coworkers test positive, and others say they’ve been denied access to paid time off.

One account admin told Billy Penn the page got more than 40 messages in a single week in late December. “It seems there were breakouts everywhere,” they said, “and only a few places handled it well right out the gate.”

What are the rules, and who’s following them?

At the minimum, for every 40 hours a restaurant employee works in Philadelphia, they get one hour of sick pay. Under the city’s law, employers are also required to “[display] a poster in a conspicuous and accessible place in each establishment.”

Both part-time and full-time employees are covered, as well as undocumented or cash-paid workers. Workers aren’t required to find coverage for their shift, and they cannot be retaliated against. If workers do face pushback, they can file a complaint with the city, whose paid sick leave resources can be found here.

The admin of the PA Food Workers page said they used to be a manager at a Starr Restaurant Group location. “The sick pay hours are logged [on payroll],” they said, “but it was never something we told our staff they had or were able to use.”

Advocates say filing a complaint with the city’s Office of Worker Protects is a good first step if an employer is denying paid sick leave. That way if there’s retaliation, there will be documentation on file.

The Office of Worker Protections provides bi-yearly reports on wage complaints. Its most recent filing compiles information from the first half of 2021. Though complaints aren’t listed by industry, the office does publicly list a handful of repeat offenders or negligent “bad actors.” In the latest report, at least 4 of 10 of these are restaurants or cafes.

Candance Chewning, a spokesperson for the office, said raising awareness about sick pay during the pandemic has been a priority. In 2020 and 2021, she said the city held 47 events that included information about Philadelphia’s paid sick leave requirements.

Emiliano Rodriguez, secretary treasurer for Unite Here Local 274, said the Office of Worker Protections “probably needs a budget five times what it has” to reach everyone affected by the sick pay law. In November, members of Local 274 went on strike, walking out of a Wyndham Hotel location near Old City in protest against workplace conditions.

Early in the pandemic, organizing efforts by CookNSolo employees allowed them to receive payouts for their accrued sick time after being laid off. Efforts at other companies weren’t as successful. One former V Street employee said their sick pay complaint still hasn’t been resolved.

Paul Kenton, an employment law attorney, said companies are regularly sued at the federal level for what’s called “interference.” If employers are negligent or actively prevent their workers from accessing legally-assured benefits, they can find themselves in court. When asked about restaurant employees whose bosses say they don’t track or offer sick time, Kenton said ignorance isn’t a defense: “Playing dumb is not going to get these restaurants very far.”

The Center City restaurant manager who spoke with Billy Penn said they’re happy to see GoFundMe campaigns set up for workers whose restaurants have temporarily closed, but they don’t see it as a real solution.

“The thing that’s so discouraging is that it’s really trendy right now to be like, ‘I love my employees, I love my team,’” they said, “but it’s not as trendy to put your money where your mouth is.”