America’s Sick Restaurant Workers Are Contributing to This Country’s Disease Outbreaks

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Does this guy look a little green around the gills? Photo: iStockphoto

Your salad may be making you barf, but should you also be blaming the sick cook who can't afford to take a day off, back there in the open kitchen trying not to fall into a pot of bolognese? Precarious relationships between restaurant owners and employees who work long hours for typically low shift pay are all the more tested by outbreaks of food-borne illness, a new study suggests, and the whole thing is pretty grim.

Almost no laws anywhere in the country require restaurants to provide paid sick leave for employees who come down with anything from the sniffles to a norovirus. On the other hand, pretty much every single municipal health department in the country has a rule or law requiring employers to keep sick employees away from food and out of the restaurants, and that's where things get problematic.

Many restaurant owners cannot afford or are reluctant to pay for employee sick leave especially workers who typically receive hourly pay with little or no additional benefits if they are home in bed with a fever and sorbet and a Homeland marathon queued up, especially because that sick worker's replacement must also be paid, and that gets expensive. It turns out that sick restaurant workers can't afford not to work, so they come in. Cooks and servers do not want to risk their jobs.

Somewhat perversely, some are all the more compelled to show up for their shift in order to demonstrate that they are actually ill. That's when they sneeze on everyone and everything in their path. "It's easier to come in sick, even if you are throwing up," says Victoria Bruton, a Philadelphia restaurant employee who tried to make it through a shift with the flu. "You want to prove to your boss you're not faking it."

So while a CDC report suggests that leafy greens are a significant source of norovirus outbreaks, Mother Jones reports another study indicates that infected restaurant employees may be inadvertently responsible for up to 82 percent of norovirus cases.

New York City law dictates that employees affected by typhoid have to stay home, which is appropriate, but that list also extends to strep throat and infected cuts. "Any food employee who is sick with an illness that is transmissible through contact with food must be excluded from working in the food establishment," the code states, "until they are well."

It seems like that's never really how things go down, though. "An employer in New York actually openly told us that it's kind of a joke in our industry that our industry is single-handedly responsible for perpetuating the flu in the winter season because everyone knows restaurant workers work when they're sick," Sarumathi Jayaraman, the co-founder of the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, tells Mother Jones. "Everybody knows it, and it just happens. It's just tragic."

Will Your Waiter Give You the Flu? [Mother Jones]
Earlier: Your Salad May Be Making You Sick