Sick Food Service Workers = Sick Customers

By Raimee Eck and Rebecca Rehr
Maryland Public Health Association

food-plate_500pxLet’s play Family Feud, restaurant-style. One hundred people surveyed… What are the top five questions you might ask your server when you sit down for dinner? How about, “What specials do you have tonight?” Ding! Or maybe, “What beers do you have on tap?” Ding-ding! Or perhaps, “What’s your favorite dish on the menu?” Ding-ding-ding!

You probably aren’t asking if they are able to earn paid sick days. Or whether they have ever come to work and handled food while they have the flu.

But perhaps you should.

National surveys indicate more than 80 percent of restaurant workers lack access to paid sick days. Almost two-thirds of food service workers report going to work sick, and preparing, cooking or serving food while ill.

Not to ruin your meal, but one multi-state study published in the Journal of Food Protection found nearly one in five restaurant workers came to work ill with vomiting or diarrhea at least once in the previous year.

Not surprisingly, the widespread lack of paid sick days among food service workers has tremendous public health implications – for Baltimore, and for every community in Maryland. This issue is particularly important as Baltimore celebrates its Summer Restaurant Week through the end of July. More than 70 restaurants across the city are offering special pre-fixe menus, at significant discounts. It’s a great opportunity to check out a place you’ve been meaning to try, or to get a good deal at an old favorite.

It’s also a good time to examine why so many restaurant workers feel compelled to go to work sick.

For the nearly 20,000 food service workers here in Baltimore City, the choice they face is unenviable. Staying home while sick will likely mean not being able to put food on their own tables when they don’t get paid.

Many food service workers also face discipline, loss of desirable shifts, and even firing after missing any days when ill. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that most employees who report regularly working while sick say they do so because they fear job loss or can’t afford to lose income.

The CDC estimates that infected food service workers cause 70 percent of all norovirus outbreaks.

The CDC also estimates that infected food service workers cause 70 percent of all norovirus outbreaks. This particularly virulent stomach bug is the leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States and is just one reason why public officials and doctors increasingly see paid sick days as vital to healthy workplaces and healthy communities. In her testimony before the Maryland legislature during the 2016 session, Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen described paid sick days as “a public health necessity.” Medical professionals routinely urge patients and the broader community to stay home when sick to prevent the spread of communicable illness.

While this is certainly a wise prescription, it has proven nearly impossible to follow for most food service workers – as well as hundreds of thousands of other Maryland workers who are unable to earn paid sick days.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Legislation guaranteeing a modest amount of annual paid sick time has passed in 30 cities, counties, and states nationwide. Despite dire predictions of job loss and business flight due to such legislation, regions with paid sick days laws in place are now seeing robust job growth and healthy economies – and healthier workers!

The Maryland Healthy Working Families Act would allow workers to earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of seven days per year. And Marylanders themselves are strongly in favor of the proposal. In a 2015 University of Maryland-Washington Post poll, 83 percent of respondents favored allowing workers to earn paid sick days. Support was broad across key voting blocs, with 91 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans expressing support.

If you plan to eat out during Restaurant Week, or any other time in coming weeks, after you ask about the specials and what’s on tap, please remember to ask your server about paid sick days. The Healthy Working Families Act will definitely be back on Maryland’s legislative menu in 2017. Hopefully by this time next year, it will be a special we all can enjoy.

Raimee Eck is President-elect of the Maryland Public Health Association and a PhD student in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Rebecca Rehr is chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Maryland Public Health Association and a Public Health Advocacy Coordinator with the Maryland Environmental Health Network. The Maryland Public Health Association is a member of Working Matters, a coalition of more than 150 organizations committed to advancing the Maryland Campaign for Paid Sick Days.