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Food Workers' Sick Pay Would Serve The Public

Susan Campbell

April 07, 2009

Let's step into the kitchen of your favorite restaurant for a moment.

Chances are, you'll find gleaming pots and pans and what looks to be controlled chaos, with young folks learning the ropes amid old-timers like Bill, who even in the middle of what seems like an implosion exudes calm. (Bill has a last name, but he doesn't want it in the paper because he'd like to keep his job.)

Besides his expertise with food ("I know a few things about eggs," he says modestly), Bill is an expert at warding off a cold. And that's important. For the nearly four decades Bill has worked in the restaurant industry, he's never had a paid sick day.

So if Bill doesn't go to work, he doesn't get paid. Instead, he has dragged himself in when he shouldn't have and prepared food for the rest of us. He's also sent people home who were too sick to be out of bed, much less preparing or serving food to the public.

Still, says Bill, if you have to make your 30 or 40 hours a week to pay your bills, you're liable to push yourself. You'll wash your hands a little more and try to be extra careful, but a paycheck's a paycheck.

A bill before the Connecticut legislature would eliminate the need for such risky heroics. The bill would require employers with 50 or more workers to grant one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked. The bill is backed by a broad coalition of groups, including Connecticut Working Families, which last week protested in Waterbury with signs that said things like: "No boogers in my burgers" and "No red eye in my french fries."

Yes, those are gross images, but no more so than the reality of ill restaurant workers handling your food. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that half of Americans workers lack paid sick days, but that number rises to 78 percent for food-service and accommodations workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the cost for food-borne illnesses including those stemming from sick food handlers is incalculable, though medical costs and lost wages for one type of illness, salmonellosis, are estimated at $1 billion a year.

On a local level, we could simply tally the cost for people who caught the highly contagious norovirus after eating at a Manchester restaurant last March. The May issue of the Department of Public Health's publication, Connecticut Epidemiologist, said the outbreak most likely sprang from an ill restaurant worker who prepared the day's salad. The report concluded that "correct handling of cold foods, strict hand-washing after using the bathroom, and paid sick leave may substantially reduce foodborne transmission of noroviruses."

So we can balance the cost of providing paid sick days to employees against the cost of food-borne illnesses and the loss of productivity in the wider population.

Meanwhile, here's what Bill can tell you about warding off a cold: At the first sign (and this is not a paid announcement; your results may vary), start with NyQuil the night before your shift. Take it early in the evening, because otherwise you'll be groggy.

Start your next day with Zicam. That, says Bill, will get you going for a couple of hours, but the symptoms most likely will return, at which point you switch to DayQuil, which should boost you through the noon rush.

"You have to be focused and aware and able to move," says Bill. "I tell the younger guys that cooking is like a sport. It's like passing the ball to someone. You have to know where it's going to land. You have to be fully functional."

It's been his dream to one day own his own restaurant. He's conscientious, and he cares. The boss can relax when Bill's in the kitchen.

The question is: Come the next virus, can you?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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