Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Wrong Two Words to Keep Sick Food Service Workers at Home

I have sympathy for the argument presented in the Post, that food service workers should receive sick time:
Woong Chang was working as a bartender in an upscale Washington restaurant in 2009 when he started feeling symptoms of what turned out to be H1N1, or swine flu. Despite having a fever, a swollen throat and congestion that made it hard to breathe, he went to work. “Looking back on it now, I most definitely should not have gone into work, but I literally could not afford to miss a day,” he explains....

One way to limit the transmission of viruses is to keep sick people at home and out of their workplaces. Individuals with paid sick leave are more likely to stay home to recuperate, sparing their co-workers and the public from exposure to their illnesses....

Why don’t servers and bartenders just stay home when they’re sick? With the national median earnings for wait staff at less than $9 an hour, many can’t afford to.
I think it's safe to say that nobody eating at a restaurant wants to be served by a sick employee. And granting sick time to low-wage food service workers may seem like an easy way to avoid that from happening. But alas, it's not that simple.

First, it is routine in many places of work to treat a sick day as a personal day or paid holiday. There is no reason to believe that food service workers are going to behave differently than workers in other fields of employment. Employers can place a check on sick days - requiring, for example, a doctor's note - but the cost of seeing a doctor can easily exceed the wages that would be earned during the missed day of work. Prohibit doctor's notes and you guarantee that what you're really providing to most employees are paid vacation days, which can be taken without notice or concern for the employer's schedule.

Second, if employees treat the sick days as vacation days, you're back in the same situation you were in to begin with - they won't have any sic time remaining when they actually get sick. They're back to choosing between giving up a day's wages or working while ill. Many will continue to work while ill.

Third, assuming he saves his sick days for actual illness, somebody like Mr. Chang will have to consider, "Should I take my sick time now, or later"? Mr. Chang might call in sick, miss a day or two, and... then what? He will have to consider, up-front, whether he would be better off working while feeling a little bit sick or risk missing shifts after his sick time is exhausted if his condition worsens or if he gets more seriously ill on a future date before he accrues additional sick time.

But wait a second. Have you ever worked with somebody who is coming down with the flu? Did they look healthy to you? Did they sound healthy? Were they working with their traditional level of energy and enthusiasm? I doubt it. And that's where the following two words come into play: "Go home."

The fact that nobody told Mr. Chang to go home suggests to me that his co-workers and supervisor preferred to have a sick employee working that night than to scramble to cover his shift or work short-handed.
In a 2009-10 D.C. Restaurant Opportunities Center survey of restaurant workers, 79 percent said they lacked paid sick days and 59 percent reported preparing, cooking or serving food while sick. That’s a lot of servers potentially sneezing into your salad.
Do you believe that no co-worker or supervisor noticed that any of those workers were sick? Yes, it can seem a bit unfair to send somebody home when they really need their $9/hour, particularly if they need the money and don't have or have exhausted their sick time, but that is true in any work setting and for pretty much everybody else on the planet it beats the alternative.


  1. One issue specific to servers and bartenders is that a significant portion of their income comes in the form of tips. Even if the employer says, "you have a sick day, and we will pay you your wages for the day if you stay home," that is still going to be an economic sacrifice for the worker if they don't get tips by staying home.

    Of course, one solution for this is for restaurants and bars to prohibit tipping, raise their prices accordingly, and pay their workers a decent wage in lieu of tips. But for any given establishment, challenging tipping culture in this way is going to be hard.

  2. Most service workers don't have sick days, they make under or equal to $9, which is more than half of what is required for the standard of living cost. How could a person who cannot pay for basic necessities go pay 2-3 day wages for a doctors note?



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