Ronnie Polaneczky: He has a healthy approach to sick-leave issue

Posted: February 07, 2013

CITY COUNCILMAN Bill Greenlee has reintroduced his paid- sick-leave bill, which Mayor Nutter vetoed in its last go-round.

That means we're in for more pro-and-con debate about allowing wheezing, hacking employees to stay home on the boss' dime.

Pete Ellis' mind is already made up. He owns El Fuego, the burrito eatery at 723 Walnut St., and he's been giving sick days to his 15 employees for a year.

Which makes him more rare than an honest Traffic Court judge, since most Philly restaurants don't offer paid sick days to nonmanagement workers.

"If you take care of your people, they will work tenfold harder for you," says Ellis. Besides, he adds, "If you have a sick employee, he can't work at top peak and he'll get other people sick, too."

Ellis' sick-leave policy began as an experiment, when he was a manager at El Fuego (he bought the place from its former owner, after working there for eight years).

At the time, his wife was pregnant and morning sickness sometimes kept her home from her good job at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her paycheck wasn't affected, since CHOP has primo benefits.

Coincidentally, one of Ellis' employees was pregnant at the same time. He felt awful knowing that, if she needed a day off to deal with nausea, she wouldn't be paid.

"I told her, 'If you feel sick, or if you have a doctor's appointment or whatever, I can't afford to pay you for a whole shift, but I'll pay you for half,' " says Ellis.

He asked El Fuego's then-owner if he could offer the same benefit to all the workers.

"I said,'This is something that would benefit the employees. I'll monitor it. If they abuse it, I'll stop it,' " says Ellis. "He said, 'If you think it'll work, do it.' "

Since then, he swears, his people have used the policy only when needed, and they take pains to talk with him about it first. Ellis is not surprised by their respect for the system.

"When you give people the benefit of the doubt, they usually won't let you down," he says.

Of course, Ellis knew his employees well by the time he became their boss (each has worked at El Fuego at least five years - a hefty tenure in the transient restaurant world). So, perhaps their prior affinity helps everyone trump whatever walls usually separate bosses from employees.

But I think it's Ellis himself who makes the policy work. Because he's a sweetheart.

Trained as a social worker, he worked in New York homeless shelters before moving into the restaurant industry. In the shelters, he saw people who were down on their luck but not their integrity. Some people tried to game the system, yes, but most just wanted to be treated with kindness.

He figured that the same maxim applied in the restaurant business.

"A lot of bosses see employees as numbers, or replaceable," he says. "My philosophy is, 'I want to keep you for as long as I can, as long as we both work hard and the respect goes both ways.' "

He tells of a worker who needed a place to hold her baby shower. Ellis let her use El Fuego for free, and he even provided the food.

And there was the employee who was short about $200 on rent for his apartment. So, Ellis lent him the money, without interest, and allowed him to pay it back, 10 bucks a week.

"To me, it's so important to make this about more than a job," he says. "I see these people every single day. They're like family."

And, like family, they have Ellis' back. After his wife delivered their daughter, some scary medical issues came up that kept him from the restaurant for a few days. His workers, he says, "were falling all over themselves" to help their worried boss. They came in early, they stayed late, they picked up his slack.

"Pete has made this a really good place to work," says line cook and part-time student Simon Ponce, taking a breather after the lunch crowd had cleared. "People care about each other."

Since Ellis voluntarily created El Fuego's paid-sick-leave policy, I assumed that he'd oppose any bill proposing to make paid sick-leave mandatory in the city.

I assumed wrong.

"It should be mandatory," he says immediately, though he admits that the devil is in the details with these things. "It's the right thing to do. Some bosses won't do the right thing unless they're forced to. "

And that's whether they own a restaurant or not, actually. Sure makes me wish Philly had more Pete Ellises.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog

Columns: philly.com/Ronnie

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