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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 5, 2010, 7:22 am

Serving While Sick: Germs Spread by Restaurant Workers’ Lack of Healthcare, Paid Time Off

BY Micah Uetricht

What's in—and around—those burgers?   (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

About 90 percent of resturant workers lack of sick days, employer-provided healthcare, new report says

When choosing a restaurant to patronize, you usually weigh a number of factors: price, style of food, word-of-mouth recommendations, ambiance. But what about your likelihood of catching germs from an ill cook or waitress who could not take a paid sick day?

That probably should be a concern for anyone who eats out, because a new study of restaurant workers around the country reveals some disturbing data: almost two-thirds of restaurant employees have cooked or served food while sick, exposing customers to their illnesses—largely because 87.8 percent of those workers have no paid sick days.

"Serving While Sick" was released last week by the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United (ROC), the restaurant workers' organization covered extensively on this blog. The study was the largest survey of restaurant employees and owners ever conducted, according to ROC, which surveyed 4,323 employees and interviewed 240 employers and 240 employees in eight states. ROC found a large number of what they call "low road" employers—restaurants who, in addition to paying their employees little and giving few opportunities for advancement, offer little or nothing in the way of health benefits or paid time off for illness.

The study's findings should be worrisome for anyone who cares about worker justice, or just who patronizes restaurants and doesn't want to fall ill:

  • 38.1 percent of workers said they had put their own safety at risk while working;
  • 49.5 percent said they had been cut on the job, and 45.8 percent had been burned;
  • Almost 90 percent had no employer-provided health insurance.
  • 87.7 percent reported receiving no paid sick days.

The stories described in the report describe the dangers to both consumers and employees when the latter lack paid sick leave. June Lindsey, a worker at a Popeye's restaurant in Detroit, described coming to work with a serious cold.

I could not call in sick because no work meant no money and I couldn't afford it at that time. My kids were very young... Halfway through the day, the sneezing, coughing and runny nose got worse. I asked the manager, "I am really sick and need to go because I could make others sick..." She laughed and told me, "Try not to cough, then."

So I had to work that day sick, and who knows how many customers I got sick... Later on all of us got sick one by one, and all this came from another worker that came to work sick like me, but was not allowed to leave work!

The study was released days before Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of ROC-United, testified before Congress along with several restaurant workers, owners, and allies in favor of H.R. 2460, the Healthy Families Act. If passed, the bill would mandate any business with 15 or more employees to let workers earn at least one hour of paid sick time per 30 hours worked.

Jayaraman says the response to the bill thus far has been "very, very supportive." "There has been very little argument against it—except, of course, from the business lobby," she stated. Jayamaran cited another recent study that showed a majority of Americans—69 percent—think having paid sick days is "very important." (Seventy-five percent support a mandatory paid sick days law like the Healthy Families Act.)

While the paid sick days provided by Healthy Families Act would decrease the number of workers working while sick, the issue of healthcare coverage--particularly for the 90 percent of restaurant workers whose employers don't cover them--remains unsolved.

"We need healthcare reform for everyone—including undocumented immigrants," said Jayamaran. "If we don't start that conversation now, it will never be brought up." (Of course, that conversation has been brought up before—although ROC was probably not happy with where it went.)

To deal with the dearth of coverage for both documented and undocumented workers, ROC will soon launch a national restaurant workers' health insurance plan through Aetna, though the details are not yet final. "ROC-United believes that health care coverage should be a right for all people—including undocumented immigrants," ROC memmbers write in the report, the full title of which is "Serving While Sick: High Risks & Low Benefits for the Nation’s Restaurant Workforce, and Their Impact on the Consumer." The plan is an effort to cover those still uninsured even after President Obama's recently passed healthcare reform fully takes effect.

The study on sick days and health coverage is one of many released by the organization. ROC has also taken employers they accuse of wage theft and other violations to task, filing major lawsuits against upscale restaurants in Detroit and Chicago, and has begun organizing in New Orleans. In New York City, where the organization was founded, they have hit high-profile restaurateurs with a number of lawsuits, accusing bosses of myriad labor law violations (the owners are, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, "under siege") while simultaneously opening and running a worker-owned co-op restaurant in Manhattan.

With the Healthy Families Act and the ROC insurance plan for restaurant workers still in their early stages, waitresses and cooks will still be heading to work sick, and customers will still be encountering their germs. But ROC's work may be the first step away from what Jayamaran calls an "industry that perpetuates illness."

Micah Uetricht is an In These Times contributing editor. He is an assistant editor at Jacobin and has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Salon, and the Chicago Reader, and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Verso/Jacobin Books, March 2014). Perhaps most importantly, he is also a proud former In These Times editorial intern. Follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht or contact him at micah.uetricht [at] gmail.

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