Last week, food labor advocate Saru Jayaraman is released her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, which relates heartbreaking stories of just some of the 10 million restaurant workers in the U.S. In a chapter called "Serving While Sick," she tells the disturbing tale of a fast-food worker who had no choice but to come to work with a bad cold since she couldn't afford to go unpaid. When this worker tried to explain to her manager how perhaps handling food while coughing and sneezing was not such a good idea, she was laughed at. She later wondered how many customers she got sick that day because she couldn't leave the counter every time she needed to wipe her nose.
As Jayaraman explains, this story is all too typical. Because most restaurant workers do not receive paid sick days, they are coming to work when they should stay home. Remember all the times that as a full-time salaried worker, you stayed home with a cold, or to take care of a sick child, or just needed a "mental health day"? It's a perk many of us take for granted, but for workers who handle our food, in jobs where spreading germs is among the most risky, calling in sick not even an option.
That's in large part thanks to the massive lobbying machine, the National Restaurant Association (aka the other NRA). In 2012 alone, the group (designated as a "heavy hitter" by the Center for Responsive Politics, among the 140 biggest donors since 1990) spent more than $2.7 million lobbying at the federal level, and donated more than a million dollars to federal candidates. (State restaurant associations are also very powerful.) The NRA also benefits nicely from the revolving door syndrome: Last year, 31 out of 40 NRA lobbyists previously held government jobs. Among the top issues on NRA's agenda? Tips and sick leave.
This missive posted by the NRA last month and titled, "Wage, sick leave, environmental issues top state agendas" explains the group's anti-worker focus at the local level. The NRA whines about the how Philadelphia's city council is sure to re-introduce legislation on paid sick leave that would so onerous that:
All employees would accrue one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked and could earn up to 56 hours in a calendar year. Furthermore, the paid sick leave could be used for anything from being physically sick to caring for a sick family member or friend, or a doctor's appointment.
The horror. How many NRA and restaurant industry executives enjoy these very privileges, or better? Locally, worker rights groups are gaining some traction, with numerous states and cities enacting paid sick leave bills. However, the NRA is also striking back wherever it can. According to this PR Watch story from 2011, the NRA teamed up with a notorious right-wing lobbying group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to pass a state-wide law in Wisconsin to override a local referendum to require paid sick days that had passed in Milwaukee in 2008 with more than 70 percent of the popular vote, democracy be damned. Also helping ALEC lead the charge on this issue was YUM! Brands, which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. As PR Watch noted: "The effect of the repeal will be more sick workers at work, making others ill, in order to save or increase profits by corporations."
This is exactly what the research shows. Results from this 2011 study of food workers (conducted in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) were not pretty: Almost 12 percent (of 500 surveyed) worked while suffering vomiting or diarrhea on two or more shifts. (Previous studies showed only 5 percent of workers.) Factors associated with working while vomiting or diarrhea included high volume of meals served and lack of policies requiring workers to report illness to managers. For those of us thinking we are immune if we don't eat at fast food outlets or chains, it hardly mattered, as independent restaurants were also at risk. The researchers conclude that paid sick days could help. Obviously.
Yet in response to this study, the NRA told CNN: "There is no greater priority for the restaurant industry than food safety." Really? Then stop lobbying against paid sick leave and start protecting your customers, even if you don't care about the workers.
A survey conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (co-founded by Jayaraman) found that an incredible 63 percent of restaurant workers reported cooking and serving food while sick. Perhaps less surprisingly, 87.7 percent of restaurant workers reported not having paid sick days.
In her recent article for CNN, author Jayaraman explained how the current flu season puts more workers and customers alike at risk. She also stressed that those of us fighting for better food safety laws should be paying just as much attention to worker rights:
If we don't pay food industry workers decent wages and ensure they receive paid sick days, then no matter how much the FDA regulates the boiling temperature for processing cheese, restaurant workers will keep sneezing on our dinner and food-borne contamination and illness will continue to be a problem.
More than half of all reported U.S. foodborne disease outbreaks occur in restaurant settings. While outbreaks have various origins, according to the CDC, about 50 percent of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by the highly infectious norovirus, the leading cause of illness from contaminated food. No wonder the CDC recommends against preparing food when sick:
If you work with food when you have norovirus illness, you can spread the virus to others. You can easily contaminate food and drinks that you touch. People who consume the food or drinks can get norovirus and become sick. This can cause an outbreak.
That's why we need better laws to help workers be able to afford to do the right thing to protect restaurant patrons. Not to mention that food outbreaks are costly to society at large. As Jayaraman puts it: "If we pay restaurant workers a living wage and ensure they can stay home when they're sick, that means fewer taxpayer dollars on public health emergencies and fewer stomach aches for diners as well."