The battle over paid sick leave is shaping up to be one of the major debates of City Council’s spring session with both sides digging in as Council considers a bill that would require most companies in Philadelphia to give employees paid sick days.
“This government-knows-best, heavy-handed mandate is a significant burden,” Patrick Conway, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, told members of City Council on Tuesday during Health Committee hearings on the issue.
His argument was countered by a waitress who said she’s often worked sick because she can’t afford to take a day off, unpaid.
“Everyone who waitresses works while they’re sick because they don’t have sick time and they need the money,” said Rosemary Devine.
Their arguments represented the larger debate on the issue which broke down along health and social justice lines and economic considerations. Both sides said they represent the best interests of employees and the city. The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is against the bill as is the African-American Chamber of Commerce. Labor advocates are for it.
Under a proposal from Councilman Bill Greenlee most employers in Philadelphia to give workers earned, paid sick days.
The bill has been amended while in committee – in its current guise it would require employers to provide one hour of sick time off for every 40 hours worked. For large firms, those with 20 employees or more would be required to give seven sick days a year. Small employers, those with between 5 and 20 employees, would give four paid sick days. Organizations with fewer than 5 employees are exempted.
The issue has divided council and the administration and business and labor advocates for more than a year. A previous bill was narrowly approved by council in 2011. It was vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter, who cited economic concerns as the reason for his opposition.
Greenlee re-introduced a similar proposal earlier this year.
This week he sensed an administration grudge against his persistence.
The hearings were held by the Health Committee – yet the administration sent the head of the Commerce Department, Alan Greenberger, to answer questions. Greenlee wanted Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz to testify.
Schwarz did not appear and Greenlee blasted Nutter.
“I think Schwarz is an honorable man,” the councilman said, saving his anger for the mayor. “To not have the health commissioner come to a hearing is the most disrespectful thing this administration has ever done.”
Greenberger called the bill “commendable” but said the administration would prefer to see a statewide bill which would level the field between Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.
“It is the goal of this administration to make it easier to do business in the City of Philadelphia in “order to increase our competiveness vis-à-vis the suburbs and other cities,” Greenberger said. These employers told us they might have to reduce the pay of their employees or reduce jobs. It might lead to increased costs for their customers.”
With other options, Greenberg worried many businesses will simply avoid Philadelphia.
“Businesses will be scared off from coming here when they have choices,” he said. “Had this been a different economic climate our point of view might be different.”
The arguments were one sided, Greenlee said: “You just talked about businesses.”
When one opponent said businesses could no longer afford “unfunded mandates” from the city, Greenlee got riled up.
“Minimum wage laws were unfunded mandates. Child labor laws were unfunded mandates,” he said, dismissing the entire point of view. “It is a matter of whether it’s right or not.”
At one point he grew so exasperated he blurted out: “I feel like I’m dealing with the Tea Party or something.”
More than 40 people were scheduled to testify at the hearings with several more, including U.S. Rep. Bob Brady who supported paid sick leave, submitting written testimony. The audience, which booed occasionally, waved signs with slogans like: “fired for being sick,” “paid sick time now” and “no germs in my pasta.”
It was too early to predict what might happen to the bill during a council vote, Greenlee said. Support seems fall largely along party lines with Democrats, who make up a majority, supporting and Republicans opposing – though several Democrats have voted against the measure.
Councilman David Oh, a Republican, summed up his concerns.
“Philadelphia is on track to lose about 75,000 jobs over the next five or six years,” he said. “I suspect we’re not losing high paid, high skilled jobs…the challenge that we will all address is how we bring more jobs into the neighborhoods of Philadelphia.”
Former Health Commissioner Walter Tsou said the bill provides health and business benefits: “in the long run [an employee] will be more productive if they can get their illness treated or controlled,” he said.