Deep golden brown oil sits cold in two empty deep fryers waiting to be changed and used again. A few curious customers push their Whole Foods carts past the empty countertops, eyeing the strip of abandoned restaurant venues inside the grocery store. The milkshake machine no longer turns pale cream tahini mix, and the aromatic picked herbs and freshly chopped vegetables are missing from the quarter tins on the prep table.
These days many restaurants have been left vacant. On March 19, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered that all non-essential businesses close.
Left without work, Philadelphia restaurant employees received financial compensation when restaurants closed to fight the spread of coronavirus.
Emily Coleman, 21 from North Philadelphia, is a line cook and cashier at Goldie and Dizengoff’s Whole Foods location. When the restaurants closed, she lost her only source of income.
According to the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Labor, tipped and commission employees are to be compensated for sick time at a rate of at least minimum wage per emergency regulation.
Philadelphia Paid Sick Leave Law states that employees must earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours of work after working for a minimum of 90 days. Employees can accrue up to five work days, or 40 hours, of paid sick leave according to Philadelphia law.
According to Philadelphia Paid Sick Law, employees hired for less than six months, seasonal workers, independent contractors and those who have worked under 40 hours in the year do not qualify for Paid Sick Leave benefits.
Restaurant employees shared concerns amongst themselves and with their employers that they were in critical financial need considering they were now out of work.
“I was uncertain if I was going to have any money,” Coleman said.
Candace Chewning, outreach director in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Benefits and Wages Compliance, said Philadelphia Paid Sick Leave policy was expanded around March 16 so that employees could use their benefits during the public health emergency.
The March expansion of the policy allowed for all employees who found themselves out of work due to coronavirus, to use their sick pay. This meant restaurant workers qualified for paid sick leave if their restaurant closed during the pandemic.
“I encourage all employees to contact their employers about their paid sick leave whether they think they qualify or not,” Chewning said.
Chewning stated much of her time has been spent working with individuals to ensure workers know their rights and what they are entitled to. The outreach director explained that Philadelphia Paid Sick Leave policy is only five years old and many employers are unaware of its details.
Fortunately, Goldie and Dizengoff are owned by the same Philadelphia hospitality group, CookNSolo. All CookNSolo employees were able to receive their paid sick leave compensations without having to contact their supervisors.
“I just got my check in the mail,” said Amir Walker, a 25-year-old line cook at Goldie and Dizengoff from West Philadelphia.
Many restaurant employees from Philadelphia expressed concerns about the amount of money they received from their employers.
“Everyone could have used more,” Coleman said, “The money was unevenly distributed.”
Coleman refers to confusion surrounding her employer's policy which allowed some full-time employees to receive money from her company’s fundraiser.
CookNSolo raised $110,000, not including an additional $40,000 from the company’s founders, in gift cards to establish a relief fund for their restaurants’ hourly workers.
Emma Richards, a General Manager for CookNSolo, said employees had to send in an application to receive money from the relief fund.
“As I recall, the application did say there was some discretion on the full-time part,” said Richards.
According to Coleman, she works 30-40 hours a week at her restaurant and received money from the relief fund. Walker, who also works over 35 hours a week, said he did not get money from the company’s fund.
Despite receiving paid sick leave, and possibly relief benefits, thousands of restaurant employees in Philadelphia have had to find new ways to compensate for their loss of income.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, over 235,000 people work in the food preparation and service industry in the Philadelphia area.
Over 80% of restaurant employees in Pennsylvania are out of work since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“I have been living off my own money,” said Amir Walker, “I am basically just burning through my savings.”
Emily Coleman said she was able to receive a government grant and hazard pay from her employer.
Both Coleman and Walker said they applied for unemployment through the state of Pennsylvania and have not received benefits.
Following the closure of businesses, many employers advised their employees to apply for unemployment benefits due to the uncertainty of the longevity of the furloughs and layoffs.
The restaurant industry is integral to Philadelphia’s economy and culture. As we all wait for our favorite eateries to open back up, restaurant employees have had to turn to alternative ways to afford to put food on their own tables.
“I miss the people and the food as much as I miss the money,” said Coleman.