Restaurant Wages and Food Safety

Since suffering a major E. coli outbreak in 2015, Chipotle has focused on refreshing its reputation by closing all its stores for a daylong food safety training and offering customers free burritos. Though we hoped the company’s woes were behind it, a Chipotle location in Sterling, Va., was temporarily closed in July 2017 after what has been confirmed to be a norovirus outbreak. Chipotle’s benefits list says paid time off (including sick time) is offered to hourly employees, but the restaurant’s recent outbreak was, like many others in the foodservice industry, traced to a sick employee.

The fast-casual restaurant isn’t alone, of course: According to the CDC, food workers cause 70 percent of norovirus outbreaks. That includes those occurring in health care facilities and banquet facilities, as well as restaurants. Norovirus causes acute gastroenteritis symptoms that may last several days and can contaminate food when it is handled by someone who is contagious. The CDC indicates the foodborne illness, which can infect another person with fewer than 20 particles, is most likely to be transferred by someone who is currently sick or has recently recovered.

Obviously none of us wants someone who’s possibly contagious handling our food, but for a foodservice employee trying to make ends meet, just staying home isn’t always an option.

Too Ill to Grill?

In the Center for Research and Public Policy’s (CRPP) “Mind of the Food Worker” report, more than 1,000 foodservice employees were surveyed about a number of issues, including the role they play in the safety of the food served in their restaurant. Of the workers surveyed, half said they “always” or “frequently” work while sick, with 17.4 percent admitting they “seldom” call out when they’re sick. Only 5.4 percent of those surveyed said they never report for a shift when they feel ill. (Nearly 6 percent said they “don’t get sick,” leaving us all to envy their allegedly superior immune systems.)

Interestingly, the majority of food workers indicated they feel “very responsible” (57.2 percent) or “somewhat responsible” (31.4 percent) for the safety of the products they make. So, if restaurant employees recognize their responsibility for ensuring food safety, why do they work when they’re sick? According to the workers surveyed by CRPP, the three main reasons are they “don’t believe I would be contagious,” “don’t want to let co-workers down,” and “can’t afford to lose pay.”

Sick for Days with No Pay

Chipotle’s paid sick leave was one of several new food safety measures added in response to its foodborne illness outbreaks in 2015, but many who work in foodservice operations aren’t offered any paid sick days. These employees may believe going to work while sick isn’t a choice but a necessity, especially because tipped and untipped workers are often paid minimum wage.

In addition to the statistics gathered from CRPP’s survey, anecdotal evidence of the issue is often provided in online discussions like the Chefit forum on Reddit, where professional chefs share stories of life in the foodservice industry. In May 2017, a thread titled “Chefs allowing really sick people to work” launched a discussion about the matter. While the post urged food workers to stay home, commenters pointed out that staying home is easier said than done. “The issue usually comes down to most kitchens not having benefit plans for illness and not having paid sick days,” one poster wrote. “If you’re working just above minimum wage and have to miss three days due to the flu, it means you’re short on your rent.”

Staying in the Kitchen

One of the other common reasons given for working sick – “don’t want to let co-workers down” – is a reflection of the demanding environment that exists in many commercial kitchens. Understaffing caused by a shortage of experienced cooks and the long hours most commercial kitchen employees already work mean that calling out, even if you’re sick, puts additional stress on other chefs and the rest of the crew.

In a Toronto Life article, author and former cook Corey Mintz had some discouraging words about the attitudes found in most commercial kitchens.

“No one ever said we had to work sick; that’d be an obvious violation of labour laws and consideration for the public, exposing diners to our cold germs,” Mintz recalls in the article. “But the first time you try staying home because you have a runny nose, sore throat and mild fever, you get a clear message the next day. No one cares that you were ill or asks if you’re feeling better. They only ask about the work you didn’t get done.”

Nothing to Sneeze At

Although not calling out of work when you’re sick may be something of a badge of honor for restaurant cooks, some cities and states are making paid sick days mandatory. According to data compiled by New York-based advocacy organization A Better Balance, San Francisco was the first city to pass paid sick day legislation in 2006, with Connecticut becoming the first state to do so in 2011. Other states with paid sick day laws include Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington; more than two dozen other local governments have also required guaranteed paid sick days.

Paid sick day legislation mandates the accrual of a certain amount of time per hours worked, usually 1 hour per every 30 or 40 hours worked (although this varies between cities and states). However, there are usually conditions for aspects of the law such as which businesses must provide paid sick time, which employees are covered, when and how an employee’s accrued time can be spent, and how much accrued time an employee can hold at once. The laws are also designed to protect employees from being punished by their employers for utilizing their accrued time.

This is part of an ongoing series about restaurant wages. Previous installments discuss the tip pool and eliminating tips.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's degree in English. She spends her free time playing tabletop and video games and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.