REINSTATEMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY SICK LEAVE ADVANCES UNANIMOUSLY OUT OF COMMITTEE

In Council News, Kendra Brooks, News by PHL Council

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A bill introduced by Councilmember Brooks would restore two weeks’ worth of emergency sick leave for thousands of workers who continue to physically report to their jobs.

PHILADELPHIA—Today, the City Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services voted unanimously to advance a bill that would reinstate two weeks’ worth of immediately-available paid sick leave coverage to Philadelphia workers. The bill, introduced by Councilmember Kendra Brooks, would apply to businesses that employ over 50 employees and could be used by workers to quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19, care for a sick family member, or stay home with a child whose daycare or school has closed as a result of COVID-19.

The bill is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Cindy Bass (8th District), Jamie Gauthier (3rd District), Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At-Large), Helen Gym (At-Large), Bobby Henon (6th District), Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District), Curtis Jones, Jr. (4th District), Cherelle Parker (9th District), Maria Quiñones-Sánchez (7th District), and Isaiah Thomas (At-Large).

As Philadelphia eases restrictions on restaurants, sports venues, retail, and other businesses, paid sick leave protections are a critical strategy in keeping the local economy open while protecting the public health. Emergency paid sick leave provides assurance that sick workers are staying home when symptoms arise or exposure to the virus occurs, thus reducing the risk of workers passing on the virus to each other and to the public. Employers who provide emergency paid sick leave to their employees are eligible for a federal tax credit.

The proposed legislation builds off a 2020 Public Health Emergency Leave bill, also introduced by Councilmember Kendra Brooks, which was written into law in September and provided thousands of essential workers with paid sick leave benefits who were excluded from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. As a result of pressure from the business community, the bill included a sunset provision. This resulted in the emergency paid sick leave protections expiring on December 31, 2020, leaving Philadelphia workers without this critical benefit while COVID-19 cases surged locally and across the country. The current bill extends for the duration of the declared public health emergency.

The majority of workers in Philadelphia who have continued to physically report to their jobs through the pandemic are making low and working class wages, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Low wage workers are less likely to have access to paid sick leave and less likely to be able to afford a missed paycheck. Further, a disproportionate number of essential workers are people of color, contributing to the stark racial disparities in COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia, in which Black individuals are more than twice as likely as white individuals to contract the virus, according to data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

“Our workers were left in the cold during the winter months, and they cannot wait any longer for protections,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks. “With schools, stadiums, and other businesses reopening, emergency paid sick leave is a necessity not only for workers, but for the Philadelphia public. Our low wage workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for nearly a year, and the least we can do for them to provide the protections they need to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe.”

The hearing featured impassioned testimonies from workers across the city, detailing the challenges of in-person work during the pandemic.

“When faced with a choice between losing two weeks of pay or not, what kind of choice could a worker earning poverty wages make when they feel a little sick? What bills should they not pay if they’re told to quarantine because they were exposed to COVID-19 on the job?” said Mike Brown, a bike security officer at Temple University. “Essential workers who protect the public deserve to be protected. Please, keep me and my fellow officers safe by making sure we don’t have to choose between feeding our families or putting others at risk. Make employers provide paid sick leave for all essential workers.”

“Access to paid sick leave would not only boost morale and help essential workers feel that they have value while a multi-billion-dollar industry is driven by their labor, it would change the way we live,” said Darnell Clarke, a contractor for American Airlines at the Philadelphia Airport. “If my co-workers could stay home when they don’t feel well and still feed their families, I would be safer, and my family would be safer. The airport would be safer for the traveling public.

“I have been and will probably continue to be exposed to the virus on the job,” said Arthella Harley, a commercial cleaner in Philadelphia. “Paid sick leave for essential workers like me would mean less risk of exposure to the virus on the job for me and my coworkers, who often live paycheck to paycheck. Nobody should have to worry about getting paid when they are sick with a deadly virus. It would give us all such peace of mind, whether we are exposed to another employee at a work site or a family member is sick and we must take care of them.”

The 2021 Public Health Emergency Leave bill is widely supported by local unions and worker-led organizations who led the charge to win paid sick leave for their workers and supported the passage of last year’s bill.

“The gap in between those who have and those who do not is continuously expanding,” said Gabe Morgan, Vice President of SEIU 32BJ. “We must find ways to close the gap both with economics and with racial justice, and paid sick days is a form of racial justice. The cost to the public, to families and our City is too great when essential workers are unsafe, unwell at work, or unable to work during this pandemic—their health is our health. Protect essential workers and you protect our City.”

“In the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis when so many families are struggling to make ends meet, forcing workers to choose between losing income and going to work ill and risk further spreading the virus is nothing short of criminal,” said Matthew Yarnell, President, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents essential caregivers in hospitals, nursing homes, state agencies and home care settings. “Essential workers are some of the lowest paid in our economy, despite being put at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. This bill protects those who are carrying us through this pandemic — and thus protects the entire community.”

“Healthcare workers, grocery store workers, food service employees, retail workers, and many others have kept our city running through the darkest periods of the pandemic,” said Chris Woods, President of District 1199C. “They deserve the basic rights they are owed to keep themselves and their families safe during this difficult time.”

“Philadelphia’s Public Health Emergency Leave (PHEL) expired but the pandemic is not over,” said Terry L. Fromson, Managing Attorney of the Women’s Law Project. “It is common sense that we should be preventing the virus from spreading by protecting our most essential workers. PHEL supports Philadelphia women, in particular Black and brown women who have borne the brunt of the pandemic as frontline workers by allowing them to stay home to recover when sick or when their children’s school or daycare has closed.”

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