On the same day that Mayor Jim Kenney ordered nonessential businesses to close in order to stem the spread of COVID-19, the City of Philadelphia announced an early effort to support the city’s massive low-wage workforce, many of whom were losing their jobs.

Philadelphia had expanded its five-year-old paid sick leave law to include workers affected by the health crisis. One noteworthy addition: Employers had to allow their workers to use their accrued paid sick time before laying them off. In other words, the city was ordering employers to pay their workers for the sick time they had earned.

But hundreds of workers — including at least 400 hourly workers formerly employed by CookNSolo, the restaurant group behind brands like Federal Donuts, Zahav, and Goldie — aren’t getting the payout.

The experience of the CookNSolo workers reveals a shortcoming of the city’s labor protections: It could take weeks or months for the city to investigate and issue a determination before workers get paid, and right now most workers don’t have the luxury of waiting.

Some workers from STARR Restaurant Group, another one of the city’s nationally known restaurant companies, said the company is also not letting them use their paid sick time during the pandemic, WHYY reported last week. And it’s possible that many more low-wage workers are in the same position as these industry staffers, as the chaos of the early days of the pandemic has exacerbated the confusion that already surrounds the city’s labor laws.

STARR, which employs 6,000 across five states, did not respond to a request for comment.

There are roughly 320,000 low-wage service workers in Philadelphia, though the paid sick leave law does not cover all of them, including unionized workers and independent contractors.

The way the city enforces its paid sick leave extension could be an early test of the city’s ability to protect workers during the pandemic, as advocates call for stronger protections for the low-wage workers who are getting hit the hardest as the virus spreads across the region. It’s similarly a high-stakes test of the city’s newly expanded Office of Labor, which has historically struggled to enforce and educate workers about the city’s growing slate of progressive labor laws.

The situation at CookNSolo

On Friday, a manager at CookNSolo wrote to workers saying that they would not be paid out for their paid sick time as previously planned.

“Unfortunately, to do so would have far more significant impact than we were expecting, and is just not possible,” the manager wrote.

It was a blow to workers, who were relying on the payout to get by.

Collin Zastempowski, who worked back of house at Goldie & Dizengoff on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, had accrued 12 hours of sick time, or $144. Zastempowski, 29, was planning on using that payout, plus the last paycheck of $500, to pay the monthly rent of $620. Some of Zastempowski’s colleagues had accrued more time: One of them had 30 hours, another had 40.

The CookNSolo workers organized a petition calling for the restaurant group to pay out the sick time, as per the city law.

CookNSolo co-owner Steve Cook said it was a difficult but necessary decision not to pay out accrued sick time.

“We made the best decision we could,” he said. “We were trying to preserve the viability of the business and look out for our employees as best as we could.”

The company assembled a $150,000 relief fund for its workers by selling gift cards. Cook and co-owner chef Michael Solomonov contributed $40,000 of their own. They plan to distribute the funds to their workers based on need and are accepting applications.

Cook said he believes the company is in compliance with the city’s new emergency regulations.

“We don’t believe [the law] covers terminated employees,” he said.

The CookNSolo workers were laid off March 16.

Candace Chewning, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Labor, said employers must pay out paid sick time to employees who were laid off on that date or anytime after, since the new regulations went into effect then.

Workers who believe their employer has violated this law should file a complaint with the city, she said. After an investigation, which could take from a few weeks to several months, depending on the responsiveness of both the employer and the complainant, if the city finds an employer to have broken the law, it’ll order the employer to pay workers the wages they’re due.

If an employer does not comply, the city will issue additional fines and penalties.

If a business is dealing with coronavirus-related financial problems, the employer can get on a payment plan, Chewning said.

“However," she added, “the sick leave law was effective in 2015 and businesses are expected to budget for providing sick leave for covered employees.”

Asked whether the city would take more aggressive measures to enforce the paid sick leave law, Chewning said in a statement: “The city is taking following the emergency COVID-19 paid sick leave regulation very seriously.”

Though the city has recently expanded its Office of Labor and made moves to make it permanent, staffing could become an issue if it sees a large uptick of complaints: There are six employees at the Office of Labor, including three investigators. One is focused on paid sick leave, though Chewning said the office would direct resources to paid sick leave investigations as necessary.

So far, the office has seen an uptick of questions about the new emergency regulations but not of complaints, she said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.