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Why Philly workers are fighting for a local coronavirus relief fund

Low-wage workers hosted a digital town hall to make their case to elected officials for a fund that would cover workers left out of state and federal relief efforts.

The Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW) rallied in February to fight for stronger labor law enforcement in Philadelphia. The worker coalition is spearheading a campaign to fight for a relief fund for low-wage workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW) rallied in February to fight for stronger labor law enforcement in Philadelphia. The worker coalition is spearheading a campaign to fight for a relief fund for low-wage workers during the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Just last month, Naseem Gibson-Bey was working four different jobs, including one at a corner store and one as a temp at a cleaning service, but he wasn’t getting paid sick leave from any of them.

Now that the the 21-year-old West Philly resident has lost all but one of his jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s doubly painful: Because he was getting paid under the table, he’s not eligible for unemployment benefits.

Devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, Philadelphia’s low-wage workers such as Gibson-Bey who make up nearly half of the city’s workforce, need help. And they’ve gone straight to the top to ask for it.

Bey was one of the workers who spoke at a digital low-wage worker town hall meeting Thursday evening to make two major asks of Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to prove their stated commitment to workers: They want an emergency fund for the tens of thousands of workers who are likely to be left out of state and federal relief efforts and an expansion of the city’s paid sick leave law. They are hoping for a fund with $5 million to $10 million.

Such a fund, which organizers propose as a public-private partnership, would provide money to workers who cannot access unemployment benefits, even under a temporary federal expansion of the unemployment insurance program. Those left out of the expansion are likely to include undocumented workers and those working in the cash economy. New Orleans and New Jersey have already set up similar funds.

The campaign for these low-wage worker relief efforts, organized by a mix of local labor unions, worker organizations, and public interest law firms, comes after the Kenney administration and City Council have passed some of the most progressive worker protection laws in the nation. In the last few years, many of the city’s elected officials have boasted making low-wage workers a priority in their agenda, passing legislation that protects the precariously employed and those not represented by unions: domestic workers, retail workers and fast-food workers. The trend speaks to a growing power bloc in the city as these kinds of workers have not historically been influential in City Hall.

» READ MORE: How slow-to-act Philadelphia came to pass some of the most cutting-edge worker laws in the nation

Now, as low-wage workers face what is shaping up to be the country’s worst economic crisis in recent history, these workers and organizers are trying to further the gains they’ve made in the nation’s poorest big city. Although members of City Council publicly support local relief efforts for these workers, it will largely be up to Kenney to make the call on the fund, as Council is not introducing or considering any bills during the pandemic, except for Kenney’s $85 million emergency budget request.

City Council can, however, introduce legislation to expand paid sick leave when it resumes meeting. Ten of the 17 members of City Council attended the digital town hall, and many told the nearly 400 attendees that they supported expanding the law, though they didn’t specify what kinds of expansions they supported.

Councilmember Cindy Bass said Council should take the stance that “if we don’t pass worker protections for everyone who’s affected by this crisis, then we’re not going to pass anything out of Council.”

» READ MORE: The Philly restaurant group behind Zahav and Federal Donuts will pay sick leave to 400 laid-off workers

Kenney spokesperson Lauren Cox said the creation of a fund was not possible, given the city’s resources.

“We certainly understand and share the concerns of advocates and those individuals who are being impacted by job losses during this crisis,” Cox said in a statement.

However, she said: “The amount of money that would be needed to provide these workers with meaningful compensation is far too high for the city — even with the possible generosity of foundations or other donors — to handle on its own. The mayor does not believe that the city’s limited resources can be used to meet the vast needs of workers who are impacted by this crisis. We have and will continue to lobby for additional critical support from the federal government to the largest number of individual workers as possible.”

The U.S. Senate reached a deal late Wednesday night on a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at offering relief to those affected by the crisis. The package, yet to be approved by the House and which experts are scrambling to dissect, temporarily expands unemployment benefits to those not traditionally covered, including independent contractors — gig workers such as Uber drivers and Caviar couriers — and the self-employed.

» READ MORE: When no one’s leaving the house, what’s an Uber, Lyft, or taxi driver to do?

Though the package will expand these benefits, there’s the added catch that state unemployment offices — which will administer the emergency benefits — are under tremendous strain, dealing with record-breaking number of claims. In Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Labor and Industry saw more than 500,000 claims from March 16 to March 24.

Sharon Dietrich, who runs Community Legal Services’ employment unit, said that while more workers will be able to access benefits, the question is, when will they get them?

Workers who get paid in cash would be eligible for the stimulus package’s $1,200 relief checks if they had filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return. Dietrich said this will be a major liability for low-income people because many do not file tax returns since they don’t have tax liability. They will, however, be able to file tax returns retroactively to get their check. Undocumented workers do not qualify for the checks, according to Dietrich’s understanding of the stimulus package’s rules.

Timing is crucial right now, as many workers are wrapping up their second week without a job. It’s unclear how long the effects of the pandemic will drag on.

Although there’s a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, there is no rent freeze, said Community Legal Services attorney Seth Lyons. Workers still need to buy food. And, he argued, allowing workers to slip into deeper poverty would be dire for a city that’s issued a “stay at home” order in hopes of quelling the spread of COVID-19.

“This isn’t a long-term fix,” Lyons said. “It needs to happen now or it’s not going to be nearly as effective at preventing people from going hungry or being homeless or exposing themselves to potentially dangerous conditions.”

Lucy Bravo Diaz, a house cleaner who lives in the Northeast, said most of her dozen clients canceled on her in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. Some have said they’d still pay her for the time she would have been working — she charges about $12 an hour — but she isn’t sure how long that will last.

It’s too hard to make ends meet by depending on clients who will pay her when they cancel, she said through a Spanish interpreter. A mother to an 11-year-old daughter, Diaz, 40, said she is not eligible for unemployment.

Ahmad Mitchell, a 19-year-old line cook who was laid off last week, said he hoped the city would create the fund to help the many people who are living paycheck to paycheck.

“It’s important that the people of Philadelphia don’t feel like they’re being abandoned,” he 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