Would You Like Some Germs With That Salad?

Next month, the District’s Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act will celebrate its second birthday. As some of you may recall, in November 2008, the District became only the second jurisdiction in the country to require any employers to provide any paid sick leave to any of their employees.

As you may also recall, major business interests lobbied hard — and successfully — to limit the reach of the new law. This after they failed to kill it outright. One of the biggest and, to me, most problematic limits exempts restaurant wait staff and bartenders who get part of their wages as tips.

A new report by the Restaurant Opportunity Center puts this exemption in perspective. The title speaks for itself — “Serving While Sick.” Bear this in mind next time you decide to treat yourself to a white tablecloth meal out, especially during the approaching flu season.

The ROC report reflects the results of restaurant worker surveys, plus interviews of both restaurant workers and their employers in eight major metropolitan areas, including the District. It looks at several major health and safety issues — workplace safety risks, access to health insurance and, as mentioned, paid sick leave.

I’ll focus just on sick leave here.

Of the more than 4,300 restaurant workers surveyed, only 12.3% were entitled to any paid sick leave. With incomes averaging $8.59 an hour, they understandably couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off whenever they felt too sick to work and/or knew they were contagious.

Stories included in the report indicate that some were in fact pressured to show up or remain on the job when they were sneezing, coughing, feverish, even close to fainting. One worker says she asked permission to go home, notwithstanding the loss of pay, and was told just to “try not to cough.” So she stayed on, sneezing and blowing her nose, but unable to leave her post to wash her hands.

As Washington Post blogger Jennifer Huget aptly remarks, “Ick.”

The District’s law protects some of these workers — those employed in fast food restaurants, those at sit-downs who work in the kitchen or do only clean-up tasks. But even many of them are likely to wind up working while sick.

First off, they’ve got to have worked continuously for the same employer for at least a year and for at least 1,000 hours — just somewhat less than half-time. This alone probably rules out a fair number of restaurant workers since the nationwide average for those in non-supervisory positions is about 1,260 hours per year.

Those who reach the 1,000 hour threshold begin to accrue sick leave. Only those who work for employers who own large restaurants or chains can earn the maximum — one hour for every 37 hours worked, up to seven days a year.

Those who work for employers with 25-99 full-time equivalent employees accrue at a rate of one hour for every 43 hours worked, up to five days a year. Looking again at the nationwide figures, we can guess that most eligible restaurant workers in the District will earn no more. Those who work in small restaurants that aren’t part of chains are limited to three days a year.

So the majority of eligible restaurant workers may accrue enough paid sick leave for one bout of flu, if they don’t take any time off for regular medical appointments, a child’s illness, a lapse in home care for an injured parent, etc. Probably can’t earn enough to deal with “safe” issues, e.g., securing social or legal services and/or medical care because of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

Bottom line is that the District can be justly proud that it mandates any paid sick leave at all. But the law still means that many restaurant workers are serving while sick — and reluctantly exposing their colleagues and the rest of us to contagious diseases.

Unless restaurant owners recognize that the costs of a reasonable sick leave policy are more than offset by the savings, e.g., in turnover costs like training and lost productivity, and also by the income gained from a steady flow of loyal customers.

We who eat out, even occasionally, can help ensure the latter by patronizing restaurants that do the right thing by their workers. The ROC of Washington, DC and the DC Employment Justice Center are working on a plan to maximize our message.

I expect to write more about it in the near future.

2 Responses to Would You Like Some Germs With That Salad?

  1. […] sometimes successful local campaigns inspire others. Flaws notwithstanding, the District of Columbia’s paid sick leave law is a case in point, as are […]

  2. […] but the strength of the Washington metro area restaurant association and allies. It’s a danger to public health and a source of wage losses as […]

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