Behemoth Orlando companies Darden and Disney show glimmer of corporate humanity, with coronavirus-driven sick leave


Darden Restaurants, the Orlando-based multinational corporation that brings you Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, has announced it will offer its employees paid sick leave.

Albeit with their backs up against the proverbial coronavirus wall, Darden has showed a glint of humanity in its corporate eye. This is a surprise in general, and especially in this case, given Darden's past on this very topic.

Remember Textgate? Now that was some devious corporate bullshit.

In 2012, reports emerged that locally based corporations, including Darden and Disney, sent text messages to the Orange County Commissioners, including then-Mayor Teresa Jacobs – while they were seated on the dais in a public meeting – pleading for the elected officials to block a measure that would require paid sick leave in the county.

The county commissioners carried out the corporate wishes, in the face of 50,000 Orange County residents who signed a petition to force the ballot measure for the upcoming election. A judge, however, ruled that the tens of thousands of signatures required the measure to go on the ballot, which it did.

In 2013, Orange County voters passed the ballot measure, which would require employers in the county to provide 56 hours of annual paid sick leave. But then came more corporate underhandedness in the face of local voters' will. A state law pre-empting the county's ability to require paid sick leave was signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott, a bill that was supported by, you guessed it, those same monster corporations, including Disney and Darden.

And now, in 2020, just like that, Darden has decided to provide sick leave to their employees themselves, in Orange County and everywhere else. Company officials did say that the corporation is under different leadership than it was in the days of Textgate. The decision, though enacted in the shadow of coronavirus, is not born out of outbreak fear, says the company.

“The development of paid sick time is not in response to COVID-19,” Darden spokesperson Rich Jeffers told Orlando Sentinel. The new policy, which provides 170,000 restaurant employees spanning some 1,800 stores one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, had been in the works for a while, says Jeffers. Coronavirus sped things up, is all.

Also precipitating the announcement – though strangely absent from the corporate narrative – was a report by independent news site Popular Information that happened to publish around 10 hours before the announcement. In the investigation, which featured conversations with multiple former and current Darden employees, reporter Judd Legum revealed that, at any location where the company is not required to provide sick leave by law, none of Darden's restaurant employees received sick leave.

In the wake of the coronavirus scare, the lack of a sick leave policy, Legum points out, had a "new urgency." Before the possible pandemic, a 2018 study found that, in cities that have mandatory paid sick leave, flu rates fell nearly 50 percent.

Now, with the new policy, current Darden hourly employees will get a balance of paid sick leave that they can use right away, based on their most recent 26 weeks of work. New hires can access paid sick leave hours, which begin accruing as soon as they start, after 90 days.

The policy could set the industry standard now that everyone finally begins to genuinely fret about such things as a global viral outbreak looms. Disney, the other bad guy in the Orange County paid sick leave battle, has announced it's changed the cancellation policy for its cruise ships because of coronavirus fears. The temporary change allows those currently booked on a European trip – through July 25 – to change their reservation up until the day before their trip, reports Spectrum 13. Cruise travelers can get a credit to switch for a cruise within the next 15 months.

There always seem to be limitations on corporate humanity, on simple fairness in sharing profits with the people who do the hardest work on the ground, or being reasonable with patrons forking over gobs of money. Looks like a sicko, bizarro plus in pandemic times is a reprieve from that soulless status quo.

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