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Paid sick days in the time of coronavirus: Here’s what Philadelphia workers need to know

If you work in Philadelphia, there’s a good chance you’re entitled to paid sick days.

Advocates fought for seven years for paid sick leave in Philadelphia, but many don't know about it. In February, workers rallied in Center City for stronger education and enforcement around the city's labor laws.
Advocates fought for seven years for paid sick leave in Philadelphia, but many don't know about it. In February, workers rallied in Center City for stronger education and enforcement around the city's labor laws.Read more / File Photograph

If you work in Philadelphia, there’s a good chance you’re entitled to paid sick days.

Advocates and organizers fought for seven years to get a paid sick leave law passed in 2015, but many low-wage workers still don’t know about it and aren’t getting the sick days they’re due, according to a recent report from Temple’s Sheller Center for Social Justice and our own reporting.

There are about 320,000 low-wage service workers in Philadelphia, according to a Drexel analysis of census data from 2011 to 2016, though the paid sick leave law applies to a larger number of Philadelphia workers.

Officials have said that the spread of coronavirus is inevitable and that the best way to keep the disease under control is to stay home if you’re sick. That’s why it’s a good time to figure out what your employer’s paid sick leave policy is — and maybe even ask for a stronger one, experts say.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is covered?

If you work for an employer with more than nine employees, you’re entitled to paid sick days. If you work for an employer with fewer than 10 employees, you’re entitled to unpaid sick days. Chains with more than 14 locations worldwide also must provide paid sick leave, no matter how many employees work at one location.

But you have to be an employee — not an independent contractor — to be covered by the city’s law. If you’re not sure what you are, check your tax documents or ask your employer. Employees get W2s, and independent contractors get 1099s.

Other workers who aren’t covered under the Philadelphia law include unionized employees and state and federal employees (these groups likely have a paid sick leave policy written into their collective bargaining agreements) and seasonal workers.

Your immigration status does not affect your ability to get paid sick leave.

You have to work at least 40 hours a year for that employer in order to accrue sick days. Under the Philly law, you can accrue up to five (paid or unpaid) sick days. And you have to have worked 90 days before you can use them.

Five days? Aren’t officials advising a 14-day self-quarantine for those who might have been exposed?

Yes. You could talk to your employer about this, as well as ask for a more robust policy, said Nadia Hewka, a lawyer with Community Legal Services. She suggested getting together with your colleagues to ask your employer. Five paid sick days is just the minimum under the law, she said.

There are also plans to introduce legislation in Harrisburg to protect workers’ jobs in case of a public health emergency that requires people to stay home.

What if I’m not sick but the coronavirus situation means my kid or I have to stay home?

As per the city’s original law, you can use your paid sick days if your child is sick, and you are not.

On Monday, March 16, the city extended its paid sick leave law to cover workers affected by the health crisis. Workers can use their sick time if they have to stay home due to quarantine or business closures, or to care for a child because of a school closure. Employers also have to pay out any accrued sick time to their workers before laying them off. Financial hardship is not a valid reason to break the law, the city said. If you think your employer has violated the law, file a complaint.

About half of the 33 local paid sick leave laws around the country have language saying that workers can use their paid sick leave during a public health emergency, said Marianne Bellesorte, vice president of Advocacy at Pathways PA and a leader in the Philly paid sick leave campaign.

I don’t know if we have a sick leave policy and I’m nervous about asking.

It’s illegal for your employer to take any action against you for asking about sick leave.

If you’re worried about asking one-on-one, you could set up an email address to ask for information on behalf of your coworkers. Community Legal Services has a sample email you can send to your employer.

Community Legal Services advises having a copy of the city’s paid sick leave poster and showing it to your employer. The law calls for employers to have that poster up in their workplace. You can also file a complaint with the city if you’re not getting the paid sick time you’re due, but know that the process takes time. The city says it will respond in 15 business days, and the investigation usually takes longer than that. But workers have gotten the sick days they were due after the city stepped in.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia is one step closer to setting up a permanent agency to protect worker rights

I was told I have to find someone to cover my shift if I call out sick.

That’s against the city law. See above for tips.

What about the rest of Pennsylvania?

On March 15, some Pittsburgh workers will begin accumulating paid sick days about nine months after the state’s highest court ruled the city had the power to pass the regulation.

» READ MORE: Pa. Supreme Court: Pittsburgh can require businesses to provide paid sick leave

At the state level, lawmakers have introduced two separate paid sick leave bills, which would give employees six to seven paid sick days every year.

While there’s broad support in the Democratic caucuses for the measures, the bills have been stuck in Republican-controlled committees for months.

What about the cities that don’t have paid sick leave laws?

That’s been a big topic of conversation as the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., especially because it’s low-wage workers, who can’t work from home, who would be most hard hit by a lack of paid sick days — and most likely to transmit the virus to customers they interact with.

There is no federal law allowing workers to earn paid sick leave, but last Friday, Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow workers to get up to seven days of paid leave and give them 14 days of paid sick leave immediately, in a public health emergency.

The proposed bill doesn’t cover independent contractors, though, which include gig workers such as Uber drivers and food delivery couriers who will be relied on to deliver food to homes of the self-quarantined. The coronavirus outbreak has renewed calls among advocates for more rights for these workers.