In less than two months, many Philadelphians will lose their ability to get paid sick leave — despite a resurging pandemic. City Council can fix that, but the window is closing.
The coronavirus laid bare the inequities that low-wage workers face, from healthcare access to eviction dangers to job security. Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in March to mandate paid coronavirus-related sick leave to many, funded via payroll tax credits to employers. But it failed to cover 3 million Pennsylvania workers — notably gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers, and delivery workers for services like Grubhub and Caviar. If those individuals needed to quarantine during the pandemic, they were out of luck. To continue earning income, they had to work sick — and in doing so, possibly infect members of the public with whom they interacted.
Councilmember Kendra Brooks, along with cosponsors Helen Gym and Bobby Henon, stepped up with a bill that mandates employers to grant up to 14 days' paid coronavirus-related sick leave to many workers whom the FFCRA left hanging. That law passed in September. That’s the good news.
But as COVID cases reach record heights, bad news is just around the corner.
When Brooks introduced her bill in May, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce lobbied hard against it, and succeeded in watering down the bill that ultimately passed. The final version wiped out many of the original’s protections, including those for certain workers with high-risk family members, or workers who know that they have been exposed to COVID-19 and are showing symptoms, but haven’t yet been diagnosed. It also scheduled the law to sunset at the end of this year.
When the bill passed on Sept. 10, Pennsylvania had a seven-day average of 729 COVID cases per day. Averages last week reached over 5000. With less than two months left before the bill expires, and the pandemic’s second wave in full force, now is the time for City Council to both renew and strengthen this essential legislation.
What’s more, the city made scant efforts to publicize the new law, so many workers don’t even know that this protection applies to them. That’s a recipe for lax enforcement and undercompliance. The city’s Department of Labor needs a communications campaign that gets the word out to workers.
For the city’s law to work as intended, Congress also must renew the FFCRA, whose leave provisions also expire December 31, to ensure that employees at small and midsized businesses aren’t left without adequate coverage. But City Council doesn’t have to wait for Congress. Any renewal of the city’s law would send a strong message about valuing workers.
Businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, and this could be an extra squeeze. But the pandemic also laid bare the fact that too many low-wage workers have borne the brunt of the crisis. Besides, businesses won’t survive without a healthy workforce, and sick leave protects not just workers, but the customers with whom they interact. With COVID cases ballooning to record levels and inaction from Congress, now is not the time to take away this essential protection.