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LA City Council Weighs Ordinance Requiring Restaurant Workers Receive Two Weeks Sick Pay

The emergency session hopes to address relief for workers and renters as the pandemic ravages the economy, but restaurant owners say that the sick pay proposal could bankrupt them

An aerial shot of Los Angeles
Los Angeles
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Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

On March 27, the Los Angeles City Council will consider a new ordinance requiring local restaurants and bars to offer two weeks of paid sick leave. The proposed ordinance requires all LA County businesses to pay workers and renters affected by the coronavirus public health crisis. As county officials required restaurants to temporarily close dining rooms and pivot to a less profitable delivery/pickup model, this could be relief for employees who haven’t seen a paycheck in weeks, and potential trouble for the already embattled restaurant community.

Motion 20-0147-S39 would require that every business in Los Angeles County shut down by a government official for reasons related to coronavirus — including restaurants and bars — provide two weeks of paid sick leave to each employee. If passed, a $15 full-time employee could receive up to $1,050 from their employer. For a restaurant with less than ten employees like Crenshaw’s Swift Cafe, this can add up quickly. Large and corporate restaurants are better suited to weather the cost, including Sugarfish which employs hundreds in Los Angeles.

Thanks to the rapid loss of business over the last few weeks, restaurants are already in a vulnerable position. Even waitstaff, busboys, expediters, prep cooks, and dishwashers feel the urgency, as restaurants laid off staff or decreased hours in recent weeks.

A mixed reaction from employees

Bartender Cesar Flores worked at the Westin Bonaventure Brewing Company before it closed earlier this month, and wouldn’t mind seeing an extra check. “That’d be nice. People in this industry don’t have a lot of savings, especially since rent’s not getting any cheaper. Many live paycheck to paycheck. For the busboys it hurts even more. If (paid sick leave) could be possible, that would make a lot of people happy.”

Socalo’s beverage director Juan Martinez sympathizes with restaurant owners. “They’re in the same boat as we are,” says Martinez. “The government should be helping us out. Everyone would love some help just to get rent and bills sounds nice. But like I said, we feel for them too. Even a business like Cheesecake Factory needs help.”

A clear opposition from restaurant owners

With 60 employees, Rossoblu paying out two weeks of sick leave could be detrimental, according to co-owner Dina Samson. “That’s insane,” says Samson. “That’s all of our working capital, and we’ll have to close. I don’t know what we’d do if it passed. Maybe our team would be understanding, but I don’t even know if we could afford to (pay them). Every independent restaurant in LA would go out of business.”

Bon Temps chef/owner Lincoln Carson laments his nine-month-old Arts District restaurant’s future if the Council ordinance is passed. He also stresses that restaurants are already tapped out:

“What’s getting missed here is that just because we shut down, doesn’t mean we stop paying. We already provide healthcare for all employees 25 hours or more a week. Given all of that and looking at our projections until the end of May, that’ll be $250K in the hole. If this ordinance goes through, every independent business in this city whether a restaurant or bar will be affected, but at that cost employees won’t have a job to come back to. You want to see record unemployment, this is the way to do it.”

LA restaurant consultant Eddie Navarette points to another problem with the tomorrow’s motions. “The Council want to do something and know the public needs help,” says Navarette. “Their intentions were good. But restaurants are unique, you can’t provide a blanket business practice to everybody, we’re all different.”

Other efforts to compensate workers

City leaders throughout the U.S. are figuring out ways to protect businesses and workers, and not always successfully. Philadelphia’s Promoting Healthy Families and Workplaces Act expanded on March 16, and guarantees paid sick leave to employees working for business with more than nine employees. This week, two prominent Philly restaurants allegedly failed to pay accrued sick leave to employees. One restaurant said “paying paid sick leave wasn’t financially possible.”

While Navarette has high hopes from the Federal Stimulus package for businesses, future assistance might not make a difference if the Council’s measures pass tomorrow. “Overall, from what we read about (the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill) is pretty great and will help us out a lot,” says Navarette. “But the concern is that the City Council will take all the help restaurants get, give it to employees, and take it right out from under us.”