It was 4:30 p.m. on a Friday in January 2020, and I was sitting on the exam table at a Center City urgent care. I had been sick for days — coughing, wheezing, high fever, and extreme exhaustion — and wasn’t getting any better. When the doctor came back with the results from a chest X-ray, she told me I had the worst lung infection she’d seen in her 20-year career. “Just take a few sick days,” she said. Between coughing and wheezing in an attempt to catch my breath, I told her I was a cook at a local restaurant, and that we didn’t have sick leave or paid time off.
Or so I thought. It wasn’t until COVID-19 shut down all the restaurants in Philly in March 2020 that many service workers started to learn we had sick time. Most of my peers in the industry were unaware that we had all been racking up sick time — one hour for every 40 hours worked in the city of Philadelphia. These are legally mandated paid hours — at your regular hourly rate — for employers with 10 or more employees. (Employers with nine or fewer employees are only required to provide unpaid sick time.)
This wasn’t the first time I had to work while sick. There have been countless times across my career that I’ve had to push through a cough or a cold or even food poisoning. I’ve seen fellow cooks step off the line to throw up and then return to work, and servers dart back from tables to cough out of sight of customers. Even managers run to the corner store before service to buy cold medicine or stomach medicine for employees who are working while sick. It was, and still is, the norm in many restaurants.
I needed to take five to seven days off, the doctor said, and if I didn’t, I could get customers or my co-workers sick. It would just get worse. I quickly calculated how many days of work I could miss and still make rent — two, maybe three if I really cut corners on groceries and didn’t buy coffee until after payday. When I returned to work, after three days at home, sweaty, light-headed, and with a 103-degree fever, one of the chefs asked me how I enjoyed my “vacation.” A month and a half later, when I put in my two weeks, I still had a lingering cough. It turns out, I had accumulated enough sick time to take the five days the doctor had recommended (and then some) instead of the three unpaid days I actually took off.
“Sick leave may be used after an employee has worked a minimum of 90 days, although they begin to accrue upon their date of hire,” Obafemi Matti, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Office of Worker Protections, says. “Although the law allows for employees to request sick leave verbally or in writing, the Office recommends sending all sick leave-related conversations between employer and employee in writing.”
Legally, your employer cannot deny your sick time request; according to the website an example of a violation is “failure to provide earned sick time.” Matti wants workers to know that if they have been denied paid sick leave, they should get in touch with the Office of Worker Protections by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (215) 686-8202.
“Retaliation is illegal,” Matti says.
Recently, the city updated its extended COVID sick leave policy. You may have heard about this supplemental sick time back in 2020, but the new policy states that employers must provide an additional 40 hours of sick time on top of what each employee has already accrued. Check out the COVID-19 pandemic paid sick leave resources page on the City of Philadelphia’s website for more information. In Philadelphia, all employees are entitled to be paid out the monetary value of their accrued sick time if they’re laid off, furloughed, or even fired due to city-mandated COVID closure. So if you accrued sick time but didn’t use it and were let go from a job due to COVID, you are entitled to a check for those hours.
If you believe you have hours that need to be paid out, you can file a complaint with the Office of Worker Protections. The Philadelphia Department of Labor’s Office of Worker Protections enforces specific city-wide labor laws that safeguard Philadelphia workers’ rights, including paid sick leave and fair workweeks, and against wage theft. There is also a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that similarly protects those working in homes, providing services like childcare or cleaning.
“When someone files a complaint, our office will talk to them about the problem and collect important documents such as pay stubs and photos of timecards, or an employee handbook,” Matti says. You can fill out a form to report your employer for violating the terms of the city-mandated sick leave, like forcing you to take unpaid days off. “After reviewing the information, our office will decide how to help you, either by investigating your employer or by referring you to our community partners and other agencies that might be able to help.”
This process does not require proof of identity or work authorization documents, so anyone regardless of immigration status is eligible to move forward with this process. The process can be anonymous, so employees who fear retaliation are protected. Your employer will only know if they are ultimately required to pay out your sick time and write you a check.
Many restaurant owners know they are required to provide workers with this time. Yet some employers choose not to properly inform their workers of the sick time laws, often in hopes that employees won’t take time off and will continue working.
Every restaurant I’ve ever worked in has had employees work while sick. Unfortunately, it’s a part of restaurant culture, and for years, many of us have had to just accept this as reality. If you regularly dine out, chances are you’ve eaten food prepared or served by someone who is sick enough to stay home but can’t. In many cases that’s because they don’t know they actually can.