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Everything Restaurant and Delivery Workers Need to Know About the New Paid Sick Leave Laws

The new federal and state laws should financially help cooks, cashiers, and delivery workers who get sick

Customers line up to shop at a Costco in Brooklyn
Customers line up to shop at a Costco in Brooklyn
Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

The U.S. is one of just a few developed countries without a comprehensive paid sick leave policy, a fact that threatens to hasten the spread of the novel coronavirus and further ravage the domestic economy. Even New York City’s paid leave plan is poorly equipped for the current pandemic; it doesn’t apply to workers who were recently hired and it caps out at a week — less than half of the CDC-recommended self-quarantine period.

Two new sick leave bills — one from Congress, the other from the New York legislature — aim to change this reality, at least temporarily. The federal measure, which President Donald Trump signed into law yesterday, is a key development for protecting all employees, particularly restaurant staffers who continue to work delivery and takeout, interacting with hundreds of people a day. Those individuals will be able to earn full pay while out sick or on quarantine for up to two weeks.

The bill even has provisions for self-employed individuals, meaning food delivery drivers and other so-called gig workers will qualify for aid. And while there are huge loopholes for large and small companies, the New York State bill, which Governor Andrew Cuomo signed last night, fills in some of the gaps. Here are the details:

How much sick leave can workers take under the federal law?

The federal bill allows for two weeks of emergency COVID-19 leave. The benefit is a boon to New Yorkers who in the past have only been guaranteed up to a week. Problem is, that benefit won’t apply to businesses with over 500 employees (like fast food chains and larger restaurant groups). The labor secretary will also be able to exclude businesses with fewer than 50 employees (i.e., most restaurants) if there’s a belief that the law would “jeopardize the viability” of that establishment.

Fortunately, the New York law patches up some of these loopholes. Per that state bill, any company with 100 or more employees must provide two weeks of emergency coronavirus-related sick leave, provided that the employee is subject to a “mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation.” That should eliminate the large-company exception in certain cases.

Restaurants with 10-99 employees throughout the state will be obligated to provide a week of emergency paid sick leave if there’s a quarantine order. If the quarantine extends beyond a week for those smaller employers, staffers can use the state’s paid family leave program to replenish up to 60 percent of their wages, up to $1,401. Translation: A cook making $32,990, the city average, would earn $380 per week.

Are either of these laws open ended-benefit that will fundamentally improve healthcare in America?

No. While an earlier version of the federal bill would have created a more open-ended benefit — something you could use if you come down with the flu next year — the new law only applies to those who are sick with the novel coronavirus, who are quarantined for reasons related to it, or who are caring for those sent home from school or day-care. Cuomo’s bill establishes permanent statewide sick leave later this year, but in the meantime, New York City workers already have access to a broad sick leave benefit of up to 5 days a year.

Do workers have to wait to use sick leave?

No. “The paid sick time...shall be available for immediate use by the employee...regardless of how long the employee has been employed by an employer,” per the federal bill. That stands in contrast with the city’s prevailing sick leave law which requires that employees slowly accrue sick time, with the first full day becoming available at 120 days.

Will restaurant workers collect their full salary?

Almost certainly. The federal bill provides for compensation up to $511 per day, the equivalent of a $130,000 salary or thereabouts, Vox reports. That covers the salary range of almost every hospitality employee except for the highest-paid general managers, beverage directors, and executive chefs. The state bill does not appear to set limits on compensation.

Are part-time employees eligible for paid leave?

Under the federal bill, yes.

Do you need to find someone to cover your shifts?

No. The New York bill does not make specific mention of shift work, while the federal bill explicitly forbids employers from requiring sick or quarantined employees to search for or find replacement workers to cover their hours.

What if you need to care for a child who’s home from school?

If a school is closed for reasons related to COVID-19, or if a child care provider is unavailable, a worker can stay home with a child and receive up to $200 per day for up to 12-weeks, totaling up to $10,000.

Will delivery drivers, catering chefs, or other gig workers have access to these benefits?

Yes. They will be able to take a credit against the self-employment tax of up to to $511 per day for sick leave or $200 per day for caring for a child whose school is closed.

How will businesses be able to afford the paid sick leave?

Businesses will be able to get back 100 percent of the cost of sick leave through payroll tax credits. That’s up to $511 per day for regular leave or $200 per day for parental leave.