On Your Side Investigation: Sick days for restaurant workers?

On Your Side Investigation: Sick days for restaurant workers?


The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that one in five restaurant workers admitted to working while they had symptoms for the highly contagious Norovirus.

That's one of the reasons labor groups have been protesting, demanding paid sick days for restaurant workers. Most restaurants do not offer paid sick leave to employees.

The CDC also reports that 70 percent of Norovirus cases are caused by food handlers.

The Virginia Department of Health Director of Food & General Environmental Services, Julie Henderson, explained how the Norovirus can be spread by food handlers.  "The virus gets on their hand and can be transferred to the food."

 VDH prohibits sick restaurant employees from working with food. "Restaurant workers are required to report if they have nausea, diarrhea, any symptoms associated with Norovirus, to report it to the person in charge," Henderson said.

Henderson believes a high level of compliance has helped Virginia attain a lower rate of Norovirus spread by food handlers.

"I know our latest statistics from 2012 show we had out of 250 outbreaks. Seventeen of them were associated with Norovirus and direct food contact from food handlers, said Henderson.

But Norovirus is one of several illnesses that can be spread.  There are colds, the flu, Salmonella, E. Coli, Shigella, and Hepatitis A, to name a few. 

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United's Jeremiah Lowery argues that employees sometimes work sick because they can't afford to stay home and lose a day's wages.

"These are workers who are cooks, who are bringing you your food, so you don't want anyone with a cold or a flu or et cetera bringing you your pancakes," said Lowery.

But many restaurant owners say paying for sick days would make their tight budgets even tighter.

Jake Crocker, co-owner of F.W. Sullivan's Bar and Grill and several other restaurants, said, "If that person is unable to work their shift, then the restaurant has to pay someone else to come in to work that shift."

And some owners say without earning tips, the employee may not profit anyway.

"The minimum hourly that a waitress or a bartender make is wiped out in government tax anyway. They're working for the government," Crocker said.

But the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, D.C. started offering employees paid sick days a year ago, and says the cost has been minimal.

"Very few people even use it, to be honest with you," said Imar Hutchins, owner of the Florida Avenue Grill. "The kind of people who would abuse it are usually not around long anyway."

California, Massachusetts and Connecticut recently passed laws requiring businesses with a minimum number of employees to offer paid sick days. But these ten states have banned their localities from doing the same.

"We're going to be side by side with the labor unions, women's rights organizations, in beginning to push for paid sick days now that Virginia has a new governor," Lowery said.

To protect your family from a virus, notice whether your food server is displaying any symptoms, or touches your food with bare hands. You can check restaurant health inspection reports online through this link.

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