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Philadelphia City Council expands access to coronavirus paid sick leave for low-wage workers

It will notably cover gig workers, like those working for Uber, GrubHub, and Instacart, and gives workers access to sick leave immediately, rather than requiring them to accrue it.

Protesters gather during a Labor Day rally at Philadelphia City Hall.
Protesters gather during a Labor Day rally at Philadelphia City Hall.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Council voted Thursday to expand paid sick leave to include workers in the city not covered by federal sick leave legislation.

The bill, introduced by freshman Councilmember Kendra Brooks in May, requires employers to provide two weeks of paid sick leave to their workers until the end of the year.

It will cover gig workers, like those working for Uber, GrubHub, and Instacart, and gives workers access to sick leave immediately rather than requiring them to accrue it.

App-based gig workers are classified — or misclassified, worker advocates argue — as independent contractors and generally do not have access to the kinds of protections to which employees are legally entitled. Still, there has been a push to grant them more protections — such as unemployment compensation — during the pandemic.

The bill is designed to help workers like Shaheed James, an Uber driver who tested positive for COVID-19 after a few days on the job. At Thursday’s Council hearing, James, a father who has diabetes, said he got about $400 worth of sick pay from Uber, far below what he’d usually make, as he’s worked more than 60 hours a week for the transportation company for several years.

“We deserve protection doing this dangerous job," said James, a member of the Philadelphia Drivers Union, which organizes Uber and Lyft drivers.

The bill’s swift passage by a 16-1 vote despite opposition from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce showed how times have changed since 2015, when the city’s first paid sick leave bill was passed. It had taken seven years. Then-Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed it twice.

» READ MORE: Why the gig workers delivering your groceries and beer don’t have any labor rights

Nonunion, low-wage workers now wield more power in City Hall, successfully lobbying Council to pass worker protection laws in the last few years. And the pandemic shined a light on how many workers were lacking such safeguards as paid sick leave or whistle-blower protection.

Philadelphia’s original paid sick leave law did not cover independent contractors or employees of companies with fewer than 10 workers. It only required employers to let workers accrue five days of paid sick leave, far short of the coronavirus quarantine period of 14 days.

In the weeks following stay-at-home orders across the country, Congress passed a federal paid sick leave law. But 75% of American workers were employed by companies that qualify for exemptions to the federal legislation. In Pennsylvania, three million workers weren’t covered by the federal bill, according to the Center for American Progress.

Before voting on Brooks’ bill, lawmakers debated how to handle an ambiguity in the wording of the legislation concerning how to assess the leave currently available to workers whose companies lump all paid time off into one category, rather than designating time for vacation or sickness.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia set to be first U.S. city to protect workers against retaliation for calling out coronavirus conditions

Citing the urgency of the pandemic and the fact that the legislation sunsets on Dec. 31, they decided to pass the bill as is and let Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration — which mayoral spokesperson Lauren Cox said supports the bill — sort out the ambiguities through regulations.

The bill was opposed by business owners who testified that they are already suffering in the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

“We’re just trying to make it day by day,” said Blane Fitzgerald Stoddart, CEO of BFW Group, a 15-person construction management company.

William Carter, the chamber of commerce’s vice president of local government affairs and former City Council chief operating officer, sent letters this month to Council members urging them to amend the bill, which he said duplicated federal efforts.

“Given the tremendous task facing our city, this legislation, although well-meaning, could be a complex and costly impediment to recovery,” read the letter, obtained by The Inquirer.

Educating workers about their new sick leave rights will be key to the effectiveness of the law. From baristas to retail workers, many say they did not know about the city’s original sick leave law. Just 31 sick leave complaints were filed with the city’s Office of Labor in the first six months of 2020, suggesting that workers still do not know about their sick leave rights.

Council’s first session back

Thursday’s virtual Council meeting was its first since lawmakers returned from summer vacation. It was also the first since the pandemic started in which Council President Darrell L. Clarke did not limit the agenda to bills related to the coronavirus or police issues.

Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker introduced a bill that would make it a hate crime to misuse the 911 system with malicious intent based on a characteristic of a person being reported, such as race or gender. The proposal follows a series of widely criticized incidents in which white people have called the police to report behavior by Black people that was neither illegal nor dangerous.

Councilmember Allan Domb called for hearings on the problem of residents illegally riding off-road vehicles such as ATVs and dirt bikes and on creating a safe area in the city where those vehicles can be used legally.

And Councilmember Cindy Bass proposed banning the use of toxic herbicides in parks and other city lands.

Also on Thursday, Councilmembers Helen Gym, Brooks, and Jamie Gauthier all introduced legislation on landlord-tenant relations, continuing their push to protect Philadelphians facing possible eviction during the pandemic. Gym’s proposal would extend a moratorium on evictions through the end of the year.

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