As concerns about the coronavirus begin to disrupt everyday life, some Austin restaurants have taken a proactive stance to protect their employees and customers. The restaurant industry does not generally offer some of the same benefits to its hourly workers that salaried workers in other industries are afforded — especially small, independent operators. Among those benefits: paid time off for illness.


An assortment of Austin restaurants are the exception that helps prove the rule. Despite there having been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Austin, some businesses that already offered paid time off are expanding that benefit.


Soup Peddler, which has six locations around town serving soups, juices and prepared foods, announced this week on Facebook that it is extending its paid time off policy to offer unlimited paid sick days to employees.


"Any team member who is not feeling well can take some time off to recover without worrying about how to afford groceries or make rent," Soup Peddler founder David Ansel wrote. "It’s wildly important to us to make sure everyone on our team is taken care of, and we want our customers to feel good knowing that we’re doing everything in our power to continue safely serving our soups, smoothies, sandwiches and juices to y’all!"


The Soup Peddler already had a policy in place allowing 40-80 hours of paid time off, depending on length of service. But Ansel decided to remove any limits from the policy in case of employee sickness. He also has provided a $50 stipend for staff to purchase home health supplies (like thermometers) and cleaning supplies.


"We have such a trustworthy staff, I have no fear of any sort of abuse," Ansel told the American-Statesman. "My main goal was to ask the staff to extend their food service professionalism training and awareness to their private lives."


Soup Peddler is not alone in providing paid sick leave. Austin-based juice bar and vegan food establishment JuiceLand offers paid sick leave to all of its employees, with the benefit dependent on tenure. Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro in the Mueller development has long been a strong advocate for employees’ rights, including a service charge with its regular bills to ensure employees in both front and back of house earned a living wage.


In addition to six days of paid sick leave, depending on tenure, the restaurant operated by general manager Adam Orman and chef Fiore Tedesco offers access to a direct primary care provider, for which the restaurant pays at least half for all employees.


Already facing a drop in business in the coming months from what they anticipate to be the trickle-down effects of a canceled South by Southwest, Orman says it is important to communicate the restaurant’s policies with a potentially nervous public.


"There's a big section of the population obviously that's just afraid of congregating at all and sees industries where there's poorly paid hourly workers with no paid sick leave at places where there's going to be a high rate of transmission," Orman said. "If we're going to see viruses like this on a semi-regular basis, we need to be set up to do the thing that's not only right for our employees but right for customers. And that will inspire confidence that restaurants are safe."


Austin City Council passed a paid sick leave ordinance in 2018, which currently is being challenged in court by Austin business organizations and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. This week, Austin labor, public health and city officials called on state officials and business advocacy groups to drop their opposition to the city’s paid sick leave ordinance.


Austin interim Medical Director and Health Authority Mark Escott told the City Council on Tuesday that people’s ability to stay at home when they are sick instead of going to work is "essentially the make-or-break piece of the city’s response to the virus," the American-Statesman’s Asher Price reported.


"That is the linchpin in our public health response," Escott said. "It is the linchpin in our preparation activities. It is the No. 1 defense that we have. So right now it is absolutely critical that there are no barriers to people being able to stay home when they’re sick."


Small, independent restaurants in Austin are proving themselves to be ahead of the curve. Most large national restaurant groups have been slow to adopt change, though Darden Restaurants Inc., the operator of Olive Garden and other chains with Central Texas locations, just this week announced it’s "providing paid sick leave to all hourly workers who are not currently covered by a policy," according to Bloomberg.


Orman and the Workers Defense Project say that the following Austin restaurants all offer some form of paid sick leave to their employees: Jugo, Home Slice Pizza, Sweet Ritual, Lima Criolla, Stubb’s BBQ, Black Star Co-op, 4th Tap Brewing Co-op, Olive & June, Botticellis and Parkside.


While some operators have adjusted their already established leave policies, others have created new ones in response to the coronavirus threat. Longtime Texas French Bread owner Murph Willcott acknowledges that previous unwritten standards in the notoriously breakneck industry held that if you weren’t in need of a hospital visit, you could come to work. But Willcott admits times and attitudes have changed.


If an employee feels the slightest bit sick, he wants to encourage them to stay home until feeling 100 percent. To encourage that approach, hourly employees at Texas French Bread will now get paid sick leave that was previously reserved for management. Willcott is finalizing the plan but says their initial roll-out is to pay sick employees a flat rate of $10 per hour for days missed due to illness, up to five work days for full-time employees and three days for part-time, adding that he hopes the federal government will step in with financial assistance to support a more generous policy. Willcott says he has not determined whether the potential costs will allow them to keep the policy in place long term, but that they will "cross that bridge when we come to it."


"Sick leave, in my view, is like health insurance, family leave, etc. — the more widely the costs are spread, the more predictable and affordable the costs should be," Willcott said. "The folks in the best position to spread costs equitably are probably state or feds. But the level of political dysfunction we’ve got is so high that it’s hard to imagine these costs won’t simply be left to business owners. And the smaller the business, the tougher the challenge."


One of the city’s biggest independent restaurant operators, the locally owned New Waterloo group (which owns restaurants like South Congress Hotel, Sway and La Condesa), offers health benefits, 401(k) plans and up to 15 days paid time off for all employees who work at least 25 hours a week. Another of the city’s other largest independent hospitality operators, McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which operates more than a dozen restaurants, declined to comment on their paid sick leave policy.


Other Austin restaurant owners are finding ways outside of official paid time off policies to help protect employees and customers. Chefs Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher of Lenoir have always offered financial help to their staff, whether related to illness or not. Like L’Oca d’Oro, they have established a relationship with a primary care physician. The small restaurant completely pays for full-time employees to have access to its doctor’s services and pays half for part-time employees.


"We are much more concerned with their health and safety, as we are the health and safety of the rest of the staff and guests, than we are concerned about lost labor," Maher told the Statesman in an email. "We can and will make it work, no matter what."


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