Veteran Philly restaurant worker fighting for ‘paid sick-days’

Germantown’s Victoria Bruton has struggled as a single parent on a waitress’ pay since she was 18 years old.

“I worked lunches because my children were young and I had to be there for them after school,” said Bruton.

Two decades since taking her first shift, she knows a thing or two about the Philadelphia restaurant business.

Glaring findings

It’s an industry that received scathing marks recently from a report by the worker advocacy group the Restaurant Opportunity Center, or ROC.

The group combined numbers from the Bureau of Labor statistics with 580 street surveys of Philadelphia restaurant workers and released some glaring findings.

Notably, it found that although restaurant employment grew in the last decade, wages have declined. ROC estimates that two-thirds of those in the city’s dining industry don’t make enough money to support a family of three.

Knowledge from personal experience

Bruton knows that statistic all too well.

Over breakfast at a busy midtown restaurant, she said her two daughters grew up on government health insurance with income wavering week to week.

“I would average between $200 to topping out at $400 a week,” she said. “And sometimes, we didn’t get anybody into the restaurant at all, so that meant I made, perhaps $2.13 an hour, about $10 for the entire day’s work.”

Even as she found jobs at better and better restaurants, the tips still fluctuated to the point that worry became a way of life.

“I still have butterflies thinking about it. Many, many, many times I’ve gone to work like praying ‘I really need to make a $100 today. I’m that much short on my rent,'” said Bruton. “I borrowed money from friends and family anticipating that I would make ‘x’ amount of dollars so that I could cover a bill.”

Public-health concerns

And it’s here, with this worry, that the ROC report says that questions of restaurant policy become issues of public health.

With so many workers perpetually trying to make ends meet, the report finds that a large majority come to work even when sick.

“All it takes is one person at the right place at the wrong time, one sick server, one sick person cooking your food during a lunch rush for an epidemic to happen,” said Bruton. “Do you really want that?”

The prospect of spreading disease would be much less, ROC says, if restaurants began offering workers paid sick days.

Industry response

What the restaurant industry thinks about this isn’t hard to guess.

Patrick Conway, CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, took umbrage with the veracity of the report. He insisted restaurants are safe and healthy places that offer workers flexible schedules with tremendous potential to rise in the ranks.

Paid sick-time, he maintained, would cripple the industry.

“Restaurants in even good economic times operate on a very tight profit margin of 3 to 4 percent,” said Conway. “Requiring restaurants to pay someone who can’t come to work … creates a very severe hardship economically for that restaurant.”

Greater context

So the debate is can you help the working class without hurting business owners, which in turn may hurt opportunities for the working class?

At least in this case, Philadelphia City Councilman at-large Bill Greenlee thinks so. He’s crafted the type of paid-sick day legislation that ROC is calling for.

Greenlee said it’s not just the working class that supports this type of legislation, pointing to the success of similar legislation that was passed in San Francisco three years ago.

Although they initially fought the paid sick-time measure, San Francisco’s restaurant community (represented through the Golden Gate Restaurant Association) has actually come to embrace giving workers paid sick time.

“A lot of workers, because they are getting this benefit feel … more loyal to their employer because they feel they’re being treated properly,” said Greenlee, noting that the business community often defers to one mantra: government should not tell us what to do.

“I guess my answer to that is, under that philosophy, we wouldn’t have the 40-hour work week and we wouldn’t have child labor laws,” said Greenlee. “I mean there’s always going to be times when government’s got to step in when they think it’s helping people.”

Second effort

Although the councilman’s first attempt at passing a paid sick-time bill was vetoed last year by Mayor Nutter, Greenlee remains confident.  This time around, he thinks he can garner a veto-proof majority of council members to ensure the measure’s passage, though no timetable has been set.

For Victoria Bruton, the question has become a little less dire. She now works as a banquet server, a position that’s spares her the roller coaster emotions of working for tips. Her kids though, now in their twenties, both have server positions.

Money’s a gamble and sick days nonexistent, but flexibility and potential abounds.

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