Flu Vaccines Highlight Need for Paid Sick Days

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Part-time server Claire Trindle receives a free flu vaccination today at Jefferson Hospital. Photo credit: Dustin Slaughter

Editor’s note: In keeping with the Tao of Journalism, we’ve amended this piece at the request of Philly’s Restaurant Opportunity Center chapter in order to protect sensitive information and correct inaccuracies regarding their 2012 study. We apologize for our errors.

In the midst of a historic flu epidemic that has inundated regional hospitals with patients and claimed the lives of over 30 state residents, Philadelphia’s chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), a non-union restaurant worker advocacy group, gave out free flu vaccinations for the city’s food service workers today at Jefferson Hospital. Organizers hope to draw attention to not just a public health issue – where nearly two out of three workers have reported going to work while sick because they could not afford to take the day off – but what they see as a right: paid sick days for city restaurant employees.

“Allowing workers to earn paid sick time is common sense. And the reality is that the lack of paid sick time is a crisis that goes beyond this flu epidemic. Many restaurant workers in Philadelphia risk losing their jobs when they stay home to recover from an illness or to take care of a sick loved one. We’re here giving flu shots to keep people healthy, yes, but we’re also here to keep people employed,” says Sheila Maddali, a researcher and policy coordinator for Philly ROC.

The city’s restaurant industry is currently the fastest-growing sector in Philadelphia, providing over 113,000 jobs for the region and yielding $138 million in revenue. Restaurant workers comprise 79% of Philadelphia’s private sector workforce. It is also one of the few industries to not only survive throughout the Great Recession, but flourish.

Within this environment of near-unprecedented industry prosperity, organizers at ROC have begun the arduous task of pushing to improve what they perceive as unacceptable living standards for food service employees.

A comprehensive report recently released by the organization – one that angered a number of restaurant owners – gives much weight to their argument.

Behind the Kitchen Door: The Hidden Reality of Philadelphia’s Thriving Restaurant Industry culls government data, 580 worker surveys, 33 in-depth worker interviews and 30 with restaurant owners or managers. The report blasts an industry that policy advocates claim exploit the city’s working class while simultaneously earning de facto health care subsidies.

According to the American Community Survey, which partnered with ROC to produce the report, 19% of restaurant workers rely on public health insurance, essentially letting taxpayers foot the bill. Additionally, between 2001 and 2011, restaurant wages decreased by 11% while private sector wages jumped 8% during that same period. Indeed, of the 30 workers interviewed for the study, 57.9% reported experiencing overtime wage violations and 40% reported working “off the clock” without being paid. In addition to these violations, approximately two out of three restaurant workers do not make enough to support a family of three above Philadelphia’s poverty level, according to the Department of Labor’s Lower Living Standard Income Level.

Behind the Kitchen Door also cites what they call rampant discrimination within Philadelphia’s restaurant industry. They have the numbers to back this up, of course: the median wage for white (and often male) workers is $11.29 an hour, while people of color typically earn only $9.00 per hour. “Back of the house” positions are predominantly held by minorities, particularly Hispanics and Asians, according to the report.

“I think it’s unfair to present these studies as if they were scientific,” Patrick Conway, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, told The Inquirer in October of last year. He accused ROC of carefully selecting who they wanted to interview to fit their agenda.

Whether Conway is accurate or not, statistics like those derived from the Department of Labor are difficult to counter.

Maddali says that she and others are focusing not only on winning policy battles through City Council, but launching other campaigns, which she remains tight-lipped about right now.

ROC’s policy advocacy has garnered food service workers some local legislative success.

Councilman Jim Kenney sponsored a gratuities bill in 2010 which passed. Maddalli notes, however, that this bill is hardly being enforced. This Thursday, a bill on paid sick days (sponsored by Councilman at-Large Bill Greenlee) is expected to be voted on. ROC will be holding a 9 a.m. press conference before City Council convenes.

With Mayor Michael Nutter vetoing paid sick leave for restaurant workers during a Chamber of Commerce meeting in June of 2011, and corporate heavyweights such as Comcast lobbying against the measure now, the outcome of Thursday’s vote is anything but certain.

As workers trickled in throughout the day at Jefferson Hospital to receive their vaccines, a part-time server named Claire Trindle tells me: “I think it’s great what’s being done for us.”

The Declaration will continue to cover this story as it develops.

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