You Would Get Sick Less If Restaurant Workers Had Better Benefits

Paid sick leave is good for public health.

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Oct 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When news broke last week that Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group would phase out tipping at all its restaurants, which range from fine-dining establishments to casual burger spots, much of the focus was on what the changes would mean for the workers—and for prices. But while you might pay more at restaurants with higher base pay and no gratuity, there’s a chance you’ll save money in terms of doctor’s bills incurred from eating the food.

According to a survey published Monday, more than half of food-industry employees come to work when they’re sick. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Food Protection found that 20 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks start with food workers who transmit pathogens to items diners consume. In short, a lot of sick workers are on the job at restaurants, and that can lead to a lot of other people getting sick.

Nearly 45 percent of those workers—who were interviewed by Alchemy Systems, a workforce training company—said they show up despite being sick because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” In New York City, where many of Meyer’s restaurants are, a local paid-sick-leave bill was passed in 2013, and in January, Oregon became the fourth state to pass a law extending paid sick days to non-salaried workers. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen states have laws on the books that ban municipal paid-sick-leave ordinances.

“Nearly a million New Yorkers will no longer have to choose between following doctor’s orders and putting food on the table or keeping the lights on,” Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, which advocates for family-friendly workplace policies, told TakePart when the NYC bill was passed. “Making sure that working people have money in their pockets to cover the basics is good economics for all of us.”

The same goes for public health, it would appear. During the swine flu pandemic of 2009, as many as 5 million infections may have resulted from a lack of paid sick days, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“A lot of these workers actually depend on every single one of the days that they work for money,” Jose Oliva, codirector of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, told NPR on Monday in response to the new survey. “So if you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid.” Research his group helped conduct in 2012 found that 79 percent of food industry workers do not have paid sick leave.

In September, President Obama issued an executive order mandating paid sick leave for nearly 300,000 workers employed by companies that contract with the federal government—including the food workers who staff the lunch rooms and cafeterias on Capitol Hill.

“Right now, about 40 percent of private-sector workers—44 million people in America—don’t have access to paid sick leave,” Obama said at the time. “Unfortunately,” he added, “only Congress has the power to give this security to all Americans.”