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Paid sick leave for food workers makes us all healthier

Not just public health but economy suffers when restaurants employees come to work ill

By Paul Kinzie

1:48 PM EDT, August 6, 2013

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Baltimore's Restaurant Week, which recently ended, can be an occasion for reflection as well as celebration. Until recently, I was a Baltimore restaurant worker, with minor interruptions, for more than seven years. In my experience, no restaurant employee ever received a paid sick day. I know of instances in which employees worked while sick.

This experience is characteristic; according to a 2012 study by The Food Chain Workers Alliance, 79 percent of food system workers either do not have paid sick days (60 percent) or do not know whether they have them (19 percent). Fifty-three percent admitted working while sick. For restaurants, the numbers are likely higher. A 2010 study of Chicago-area restaurants found that 96.2 percent of workers reported having no paid sick days, and 75.9 percent had worked while sick.

That employees work while sick is understandable, because many restaurant workers are struggling to stay afloat. But the consequences are not trivial. A 2012 study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases investigated foodborne outbreaks of norovirus disease and concluded: "Infected food handlers were the source of 53 percent of outbreaks and may have contributed to 82 percent of outbreaks." It also found that noroviruses are "the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States," and "foodborne norovirus illnesses in the United States ... result annually in 15,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, writing for food handlers, says that "Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that can make you very sick with diarrhea, throwing up, and stomach pain" and that "If you work with food when you have norovirus illness, you can spread the virus to others." It also says that "You are most contagious" both when ill and "during the first three days after you recover." The standard that this suggests, in my experience, is not observed in any restaurant. And, again, that is understandable. For one thing, the facts about contagion are poorly understood, and hardly at all communicated, in restaurants. But, for another, restaurant workers — at least many of them — cannot take three or more unplanned and unpaid days off without running serious economic risks.

Fortunately, a movement exists that seeks to achieve paid sick days, as a matter of law, for Maryland workers. (You can learn more about it, and follow its progress, on its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/WorkingMatters.) Such a law would protect our economy as well as our health; the same study in Emerging Infectious Diseases that reported 15,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths per year also reported approximately "$2 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity" per year. Some of this economic loss, if prevented, would add to restaurant revenues and could be used to fund paid sick days.

That leads to one final observation. It can be predicted that restaurant owners will say they cannot afford paid sick days. One can sympathize — some owners, like many workers, are struggling to make ends meet. Those are realities. But the facts noted above are also realities. And given those realities, to say that you cannot afford paid sick days is to say that you cannot afford to offer a reliably safe and healthy product.

Paul Kinzie lives in Baltimore. His email is spkinzie@gmail.com.