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A Logical Correlation. Restaurant Sick Leave Policy Minimizes Foodborne Illness

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls on August 13, 2018

It seems simple.  If a business offers paid sick leave, employees will use it if they need it.  Sadly, most restaurants do not offer this benefit to their employees.  When we dine out, we trust that those who are preparing and serving our food are doing it in a safe way.  That isn’t always the case.  Even in the United States, where we have strong standards for food safety and regulations meant to protect the public, we are exposed more often than you want to think about.

Why?  Because at least some of the time, people who are cooking or serving your food are under the weather.  But why would someone do this, knowing they are sick?  One study published on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website uncovered statistics on food service employees and working while sick.  The results will disturb you.

Why People Work While Sick

There are many reasons uncovered in the study for while workers (both unknowingly and knowingly) report to work while sick.  Yikes!  Some reported doing it for financial reasons.  For many, a missed shift translates to a significant impact on their household.  Other indicated a sense of duty.  They honor their commitment to cover the shift, so the team isn’t let down.  Others still reported for work out of fear they would lose their job.  With so many servers in the job market, to many restaurants the staff are expendable.

Food workers were polled about their experiencing of working while sick.  They were asked what happened the last time they worked while they were sick, why the decided to work while they were sick, and what affected that decision to work while they were sick.

More than half of those polled indicated that they have, in the past, worked while sick.  At least 60% of those polled admitted to working while sick.  Fortunately, a large percentage indicated that they took additional steps, such as not handling food at all to avoid passing on their illness.  Four in ten surveyed indicated that their manager did not even know that they were sick.

The survey asked why those who decided to work while being sick made that decision.  Some said that the restaurant did not offer paid sick leave or have a sick leave policy for that matter.  Others claimed that they could not find anyone to cover their shift so they reported to work anyway.  Some admitted that they didn’t think that they would pass on their illness to anyone else.

Other factors were polled in the study to identify what goes into the decision-making process to work while sick.  Seven in ten employees thankfully cited severity of symptoms and the possibility of making other people sick weighed in on their decision.  Six in ten cited dedication to their jobs and not wanting to leave their co-workers short staffed.  Half of those polled indicated not getting paid as part of their decision and one in four were afraid they would lose their job.

While many may be sympathetic to the plight of the food worker, no one wants to fall sick if it can be prevented.  This leaves the million dollar question.  Could paid sick leave deter employees from passing on illness to unsuspecting consumers?  Perhaps…

CDC Indicates Restaurants as Major Cause of Foodborne Outbreaks

Data from the CDC indicates an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States.  This accounts for an average of 128,000 hospitalization and 3,000 deaths each year.  Over half of all foodborne outbreaks reported to the CDC trace back to restaurants and similar food establishments.

In fact, one study combed through data from FoodNet, a central database used to report and track foodborne illness.  In a data set of 457 foodborne disease outbreaks, a whopping 300 were restaurant related.  A startling 98% of those 300 identified indicated just one contributing factor as the cause of the outbreak.  This was “handling by an infected person or carrier of pathogen.”  Considering a single lapse can have such high negative consequences, this should be a strong warning.

Food Service Policies

While local and state health departments often have requirements in place to prevent a manager from allowing an employee to work with food while contagious, restaurants should also have their own sick employee policy.

According the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) there are five illnesses that pose the biggest threats to restaurants due to their higher communicability.  E. coli, hepatitis A, shigella, Salmonella, and norovirus make up the “Big 5.”  In fact, the Food Code published by the FDA in 2009 indicates these 5 illnesses should be reported to the local health department upon observation. The code includes guidelines and restrictions on sick employees such as how they must be reported and when an employee can return to work.

Sick Leave Helps Prevent Foodborne Illness is a No-Brainer

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how offering employees a financial safety net for making socially responsible decisions is a no-brainer.  If the majority of restaurant foodborne illness results from sick employees, and sick employees report to work because they don’t have paid sick leave, a reasonable solution is for employers to offer sick leave.  Or at the very least protection for sick employees in a sick leave policy.

Hurdles Affecting Paid Sick Leave

As with any business decision, money is a driving factor.  The cost of providing paid sick leave for employees may put a financial strain on a small restaurant.  Though it could be argued that the bad press and negative reviews associated with an outbreak from their restaurant would be a far worse cost.

Other hurdles include deciding what kind of compensation to provide.  For example, most states do not use a typical wage when it comes to “tipped employees,” a category in which most food workers fall.  For example, Texas has a special category for employee minimum wage for tipped employees at $2.13 per hour, with a minimum that brings the wage to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 after tips are included.  Though this is the minimum wage, most employees count on tips to bring that income up to a living wage.  If a restaurant were to just pay sick leave based on the federal minimum wage, this still might not provide enough incentive for an employee to self-report.  There really is no perfect scenario, though some pay is better than no pay.  The bigger picture is removing the fear of termination when an employee self-reports to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness.

Hoping for the Best

While the unknowing restaurant patron take a gamble on their safety, all we can do is hope for the best.  Hope that the employee behaves responsibly and does not report for work with a communicable illness.  Hope that the employer does not negatively impact the employee’s decision.  And hope that preventing foodborne illness maintains a high priority in the food industry.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)