It took the coronavirus for Maggie Rybak to realize that her employers were breaking city labor laws.
On March 12, when she and her colleagues at the Roxy Theater were furloughed via email, Rybak looked up Philadelphia’s labor laws.
Within minutes, she learned that the Philadelphia Film Society — which owns the Roxy — had been violating the city’s sick-leave law for years and denying its part-time workers any paid sick time.
Rybak reported the Film Society to Philadelphia’s Office of Labor, which has seen a significant spike in complaints filed against employers since the coronavirus shut down Pennsylvania’s nonessential businesses in March.
“This wasn’t about slamming who I work for,” said Rybak, an associate manager. “It’s about my staff’s rights.”
The Film Society acknowledged it did not comply with city law.
“The Film Society has always intended to operate in full compliance with applicable laws, and believed that it was,” the nonprofit said in a statement to The Inquirer. “Unfortunately, as a result of an administrative oversight, our Part-Time Employee sick leave policy was not updated when it should have been. We recognize and acknowledge that error, and our policies have been revised to bring us back into compliance."
A spokesperson in the mayor’s office confirmed it is investigating the nonprofit, but could not provide additional details.
As the coronavirus pandemic pushes workers to the brink, more and more are speaking out about their rights. The city’s Office of Labor has received a surge in complaints, a city spokesperson said. From March 1 to April 21, the city received 14 sick-leave complaints and 197 sick-leave inquiries, compared with only four complaints filed in January and February.
Companies in violation are typically sent a letter detailing what they must change to come into accordance, and fines can be issued. Last year, 21 employers were sent letters and none were fined, a spokesperson said. “The Office generally attempts to resolve the issue with employers by helping them come into compliance and provide employees with any owed compensation rather than going straight to fines. That strategy has been successful in both educating employers to avoid future issues and getting workers the compensation they are owed,“ a spokesperson for the city said.
The spokesperson said of the 19 complaints filed this year, one employer was notified via letter, six have been resolved, and none have resulted in fines. Seven are still under investigation.
When Roxy employees had asked about the paid sick-leave policy in the past, they were repeatedly ignored or told the company “doesn’t do that," three employees told The Inquirer.
Mateo Vargas, an associate manager at the Roxy, said learning his employer had been breaking the law was like “a slap in the face."
The nonprofit Philadelphia Film Society, which has about 1,800 members, also owns the former Prince Theater, now called the Philadelphia Film Center, and produces the annual Philadelphia Film Festival. It has 19 full-time and 42 part-time employees. Executive director Andrew Greenblatt received a $149,808 salary in 2018, records show.
The nonprofit’s most recent available tax records showed it faced a nearly $1.2 million deficit in the fiscal year that ended in June 2018. The Film Society said this deficit was related to depreciation of “fixed assets,” rental revenue losses, and reduced ticket sales at the then-Prince Theater.
On Friday, City Councilmember Kendra Brooks proposed legislation to expand the coverage to increase the number of sick days available from five to 14.
The Film Society said that it is working with its payroll provider to calculate accrued paid sick leave for each part-time employee. The nonprofit also said it has received a $276,800 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, and will bring back 35 of its part-time workers next week.
Rybak, who has been at the Roxy since 2013, suffers from a vestibular disorder and spinal degeneration, which cause seizures, headaches, vertigo, and memory loss. She estimated she has been forced to take off 30 sick days without pay since 2015.
She doesn’t work this job because it pays a lot, she says. She loves movies and the thrill of managing a 35mm projector. As her condition worsened, she said, she talked with management about the sick-leave policy.
“They always told me: ‘You’re not entitled to that. We are a nonprofit, we don’t do that,'” she said. She took their word for it.
The Philadelphia Film Society declined to comment on specific employee matters, but said in a statement:
“At Philadelphia Film Society, we try to accommodate the unique situations of each employee with as much flexibility as we are able to offer, in line with our understanding of the law and the society’s needs. We acknowledge our error with regard to the City of Philadelphia’s 2015 ‘Promoting Healthy Families and Workplaces’ Law, and are committed to creating a healthy workplace for all employees.”
“We were treated like we were expendable,” said staffer Teresa Rodriguez, 26. “But you’re made to feel that it’s just the way it is and there’s no point to change it.”