KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A cough. A sneeze. Perhaps a bead of sweat from a fevered brow.
They’re not ingredients that are supposed to come with a food order, but a national survey of restaurant workers released last week served up an unsavory possibility.
Two-thirds of 4,323 food servers and preparers surveyed admitted they had worked while sick in the past year.
The “Serving While Sick” report, commissioned by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a labor coalition for restaurant workers, pinpoints two reasons the workers don’t stay home:
• Nearly nine in 10 food-service workers said they lacked paid sick days.
• More than six in 10 said they had no health insurance from any source.
The survey sponsors say those numbers heighten public health risks if the nation’s 10 million restaurant industry employees, working in more than 568,000 food and drink establishments, spread disease.
Compliance with code not perfect
The National Restaurant Association, representing restaurateurs, took issue with the report. It presents a “distorted image of the restaurant industry and its employees while pushing ROC’s agenda,” said Scott DeFife, executive vice president for policy and government affairs.
DeFife said restaurants must adhere to local food-code regulations that require ill employees to stay home and must follow federal food-handling, safety and sanitation standards.
But the report detailed instances in which that didn’t occur.
“Who knows how many customers I got sick because I couldn’t go to the back and leave the counter to wash my hands after every sneeze or nose wipe,” said June Lindsey, a fast-food worker in Detroit who allowed her name to be used in the report.
Lindsey and other restaurant workers interviewed said they had to go to work or lose pay. In some cases, they said, they had to go to work or lose their jobs.
“I am always forced to come in, and if I don’t, I know I will be fired or my hours will be drastically reduced,” said Luis DeLeon, a Chicago grill cook quoted in the report. “I can’t afford to lose my job or get my hours cut, so I just put up with it.”
No matter the profession, many workers go to work because they need the money or are compelled by a sense of duty.
DeFife said the restaurant association supports voluntary paid-leave programs for workers and flexible work hours to meet employee needs. Also, he noted, many restaurants offer paid-time-off plans that include sick days.
Furthermore, some companies, such as McDonald’s and, for some workers, Applebee’s, provide health benefits for restaurant employees.
Bob Bonney, chief executive officer of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said he also knew that many restaurant workers did what he did when he waited tables – traded shifts with others when they weren’t feeling well.
But the high-turnover restaurant industry, in which many workers are part time, generally isn’t known for providing paid sick days.
New option for health coverage
Statistics from the U.S. Labor Department indicate that the restaurant industry is the nation’s third highest in terms of occupational injuries and illnesses, ranking after schools and hospitals.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is a coalition representing 6,000 members in seven restaurant labor organizations.
This year it introduced a national restaurant workers health insurance plan – a low-cost, limited medical plan. The survey partly served to publicize the plan.
Jose Oliva, policy coordinator for the group, was in Washington on Thursday along with others to advocate for the Healthy Families Act, legislation that would mandate up to seven accrued paid sick days for American workers.
“The conditions we highlight in the report are pervasive,” Oliva said. “They exist in every city in the United States.”
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and one of about 120 legislators supporting the bill, said the health care reform legislation passed this year doesn’t go far enough to ensure paid sick days for workers.
Problem may be even more pervasive
Among restaurant workers interviewed for the report, median weekly incomes were reported at $330 and $400 a week, depending on the nature of employee benefits.
The median hourly wage of all restaurant workers nationally is $8.59 an hour, the report said.
The report noted that nearly half of the restaurant workers surveyed were foreign-born and that about one in seven admitted they lacked legal documents to work in the United States.
“We suspect that the magnitude of health problems and unsafe practices may be higher than found in this study,” the report said.
Research support for the report was provided by the National Employment Law Project and the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. Funding was provided by the Public Welfare Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.