Would you like the flu with your fries?

Published 6:14 am Monday, June 23, 2008

By Staff
When you walk into your favorite restaurant or fast-food joint, the sanitation grade rating isn’t the only thing you should be paying attention to. An “A” means that the counters are clean, the freezer is kept at an acceptable temperature, and that generally, rats aren’t lingering about. But it doesn’t say much about the sanitation ratings of another key ingredient in a kitchen — the people.
Yes, hairnets are certainly critical (and taken into account when eating establishments undergo a public health inspection) but so is the health of the workers. Do you want someone who’s got a runny nose assembling your eastern-style barbecue sandwich? Do you want your order taken over a server’s sneeze?
Unfortunately, that’s what you get frequently, whether you notice it or not (a cough is certainly harder to spot on a bed of mashed potatoes than a hair). That’s because the majority of workers who work in food service and accommodation jobs in North Carolina (78 percent) are forced to go to work sick because they don’t have a single paid sick day.
They’re stuck in the bind, along with nearly half of North Carolina workers overall, of having to make the difficult decision between taking care of themselves or their loved ones or missing a day’s pay.
And when you’re talking about food-service workers in particular, who generally rely on low wages and tips to get by, missing a day’s pay is just not much of an option. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly earnings of full-time waiters and waitresses are the lowest of 427 ranked occupations. Also among the 25 lowest-ranked occupations are food preparers, bartenders and cooks.
So, the workers wipe their noses, pack some tissues and head into work. And then the domino effect of not having any paid sick days begins.
First, the sick worker arrives to work and the inevitable occurs — the worker’s own sniffles not only annoy their co-workers but spread to them, too. It’s no coincidence that the sickness spreads quickly. According to a national study, 87 percent of employers report that sick employees who show up to work are suffering from short-term illnesses such as a cold or flu, which can easily spread to co-workers. Research shows that every ill worker with the flu infects 1.8 out of 10 of his/her co-workers. And 40 percent of those that contract the flu report getting it from their colleagues.
Getting sick from your co-workers is a common occurrence, and in restaurants, getting sick from work itself happens as well. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that the pathogens associated with outbreaks (noroviruses) are actually more common in restaurants.
Then, not only does the employer suddenly have a whole slew of sick, sniffly workers, but, inevitably, productivity is affected too. It’s hard to keep up your normal chopping pace or wash dishes quickly when your head is pounding. A decrease in productivity then affects the bottom line.
Employers shouldn’t be the only ones concerned, however, about the effects of a lack of paid sick days for their workers. It’s the public that should be worried too.
Workers who lack paid sick days are disproportionately the ones who interact with the public the most — servers, bartenders, cashiers, child care providers, retail workers and adult care providers. And in some cases, those workers are working in the most high-risk settings for the spread of diseases, such as hospitals and nursing homes.
The public health threat from a lack of paid sick days is real. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control recommends that workers who are ill “stay home work and school” to prevent the spread of disease in the workplace and community. But without any paid sick days, many workers just simply can’t afford to miss work to stay home and follow the CDC’s advice.
But for those tired of some unwanted illness in our Happy Meals, fortunately there’s growing momentum around the country for changing things. Now more than a dozen states have active campaigns guaranteeing workers a minimum numbers of paid sick days. Here in North Carolina, more than 25 organizations have joined to form the N.C. Paid Sick Days Campaign. We’ve come together because providing workers with paid sick days is about creating healthier families and healthier workplaces.
And no, we don’t want the flu with our fries.