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Why you should care about paid sick leave

If you're about to eat in a restaurant, you should read this first.

Or then again, maybe you'd rather not.

A report being released at a Congressional hearing later this morning by the D.C.-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United ("a national restaurant workers' organization, comprised of restaurant worker organizations across the country," according to its Web site) says, among other key findings from its survey of more than 4,000 restaurant workers nationwide, that "nearly 90% of workers said they did not receive paid sick days. As a result, two thirds of respondents said they had worked while sick in the previous year, preparing, cooking and serving food."


The restaurant workers' organization is one of many advocates across the country pushing for passage of the Healthy Families Act, whose provisions include requiring employers to provide sick leave. A poll released this summer showed that most Americans favor such a law.

In 2008, the District of Columbia became the second U.S. city (after San Francisco) to pass a law requiring most employers to provide paid leave that workers can use to attend to their own or a family member's illness.

Business owners balk at blanket legislation dictating the kind of leave they offer and to whom. In New York City, proposed legislation has met with opposition from proprietors who say the expense associated with the law would force them to move their businesses out of the city.

Today's report features case histories of low-wage workers who tell of times they've reported to work while ill. Here are some excerpts:

"Sick time? I take my own sick time, if I'm very sick I don't go. But many times you can't afford to take the day off because you're sick, and all the time, especially this season and in the spring, a lot of my coworkers they were sick, sneezing in the food. They were disgusting. But you know, what can they do? They cannot afford to take the day off." - Female, Maine, 4 years in the industry, Server
"There [are] times when I call in and tell them I'm sick and they still say 'you can't come in for a few hours?' They don't care! You gonna be sneezing, over people's food and stuff like that and if you wanna put a mask on or try to cover yourself up or whatever then it's bad for the business. That's why you should have allowed me to stay home. I told y'all I was sick! That's how it is right now [though]; they just don't care." - Female, New Orleans, 23 years in the industry, Server
"The concept does not exist: there is no sick time, you come to work either way. If you don't come you don't get paid and if you stay off too long you get fired, that's it, even if you've been there for two years." - Male, Michigan, 5 years in the industry, Line Cook

Obvious issues of humanity aside, I'm not generally in favor of slapping extra burdens on small and mid-sized businesses, especially in today's economy. On the other hand, I'm not thrilled at the idea of having someone sneeze in my soup.

With cold and flu season nigh upon us, it's a good time to be thinking about the impact sick workers -- in restaurants and elsewhere -- might have on all of us. But even if this report's release and the attendant publicity helps get the federal law passed, it won't go in effect soon enough to allow sick workers this season to stay home and recuperate without losing their day's wages.

I don't know about you, but I've suddenly lost my appetite.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | September 30, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health, Health Policy, Infectious Disease, Influenza, The Business of Health, Workplace health  
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I worked in the "hospitality" industry in the USA for over 32 years and rarely had sick time or health insurance. Even when I was employed by food/entertainment corporations (located in Central Florida) and had sick time and insurance we were reprimanded if we used it. If another employee had to cover your shift while you were ill, that often costs the company overtime pay which they would throw back in your face (even at server pay of $2.50/hr or cook pay of $10.00hr). While the CEO's of such companies have multimillion dollar contracts, the worker who had direct contact with the guests were afraid to use the sick time to recover.

My husband was working for a 4 star hotel in Colorado when an outbreak of rotavirus occured. Unfortunately he was one of the ill employees. The outbreak was very large and guests became ill. The local health department was involved. The HR department (on the suggestion of the health deapartment) told employees stay home if they were ill, they would be paid sick time and NOT written up(a common practice at this property ) for staying home and recovering. When my husband returned to work, he was not allowed to use sick time and he was written up. When he questioned the HR director, she said she only said that to get the health deapartment off her back and the illness will be handled like always (where you can be written up for calling in ill). This is at a 300 room resort w/ 4 stars with an average room rate over $180 per night! I think the rotavirus spread so fast there too since the in room glassware was rarely run through a dish machine (even between guests) and often cleaned by housekeepers in the room w/ only hot water NO (soap) unless the housekeepers brought it from home. I know this because my daughter worked in housekeeping at the same property until she quit in dusgust over issues like this.

It is a tragedy that hotel and restaurants employees in this country are treated like a class of people who do not deserve basic rights. It should not be called the service sector, but the SERVITUDE sector.

Posted by: bpartoens | September 30, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

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