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Lindsey Duchac (left) joins other Action United picketers outside the Olive Garden restaurant at 9280 Roosevelt Boulevard. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

— Protestors with an advocacy organization demonstrate outside an Olive Garden restaurant, demanding that employees be paid for sick time and family leave.

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Che Saitta, of Fishtown, has held part-time jobs at various restaurants over the years.

Saitta recalled riding her bicycle to an eatery in Center City one day when she was hit by a truck door that the driver had swung open.

Yet, she served as a hostess, bused tables and worked in the kitchen that day.

“I still had to go to work because I couldn’t afford to take the day off,” she said. “They didn’t even have Band-Aids to cover up my scrapes.”

Saitta, who has worked for as many as four restaurants at a time, said there is generally a “mutual understanding” between employees and management that workers report for duty even when they are sick or injured.

Last week, Saitta joined a protest organized by Action United outside the Olive Garden restaurant at 9280 Roosevelt Blvd.

Action United, which formed in 2010, is made up of low- and moderate-income Pennsylvanians. The group has organized for economic justice, fair lending practices, good schools, a better environment and affordable health care.

The 11 protesters spent an hour one late afternoon rallying for paid time off for workers who are sick or have to care for an ailing family member.

By protest standards, this one was pretty tame.

The protesters gathered on the sidewalk and median of the Boulevard, not at the entrance to the Italian restaurant. They held signs with slogans printed in English and Spanish.

Some passing motorists honked in support, though none of the signs mentioned Olive Garden. At the request of a couple of Olive Garden employees, the protesters even agreed to put away a sign that read, “No germs in my pasta.”

The visitors took turns using a megaphone to chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go,” and “What do we want? Paid sick time. When do we want it? Now.”

“What do they want, breadsticks?” joked an Olive Garden employee who walked outside to observe the commotion.
An Olive Garden manager referred questions to Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc., parent of the restaurant.

The company issues the following statement: “We respect this group’s right to protest, however at Olive Garden and all Darden restaurants we provide our employees with competitive benefits that are consistent with our peer group of companies, including medical and disability coverage. We also offer flexible scheduling so a sick employee can make up for lost hours when he or she is well, and through our employee assistance program employees can get financial help if they or a loved one has an extended illness. Our ability to recruit and retain talent in our restaurants validates that we are providing a total benefits package that is competitive and supports our desire to be an employer of choice.”

Darden has more than 1,900 restaurants in North America and employs 180,000 people. Its annual sales are more than $7.5 billion. Other restaurants that are part of the company include Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille.

Darden was included on Fortune magazine’s 2011 list of the 100 best companies to work for, ranking 97th.

Olive Garden recently made some national news. On April 19 at a restaurant in Indianapolis, a 10-year-old boy ordered a fruit-and-yogurt smoothie, only to be served a strawberry daiquiri that contained rum. He drank half the glass by the time the mistake was realized.

As for the sick leave issue, Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed a bill requiring Philadelphia businesses with more than five employees to offer paid time off, based on hours worked. City Council passed a much weaker bill requiring sick leave only for companies that have government contracts, and Nutter let it become law last October without his signature.

According to Action United, more than 200,000 working Philadelphians cannot take paid time off to get well or care for a sick family member. Organizers argue that businesses that allow workers to earn paid time off for illness have less turnover, lower hiring and training costs and a healthier, more dedicated work force. Those workers also stay on the job and off public assistance.

About 36,000 Philadelphia workers in the food service and accommodation industry don’t have earned sick days, so they are sometimes handling food and making beds while sick, said protest organizer Jasmine Rivera of South Philadelphia.

Rivera also explained that workers who’d like a day off to care for their sick children, but cannot afford to lose income, are sending those ill kids to school. She and other protesters want City Council to pass a sick leave bill with a veto-proof majority to give cooks, servers and others earned time off.

Councilman Bill Greenlee (D-at large) has been the lead proponent of the legislation. Supporters point to a similar law in San Francisco that they say has been an all-around success.

Ora Jenkins of North Philadelphia dismissed claims from opponents of paid sick time that employees would abuse it. She said the absence of earned time off is making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Jenkins has worked full time in the health care field and enjoyed sick time benefits.

“It was a great benefit to me. It’s a need,” she said.

Rivera sees the issue as one of fairness, pointing to the company’s profits and executive salaries.

“Olive garden is a chain. It’s a big company,” she said. “Why can’t they give workers paid sick time?” ••

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