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As coronavirus spreads, the people who prepare your food probably don’t have paid sick leave

Mar 4, 2020 / News Item / The Washington Post — Kimberly Kindy

When Detroit restaurant chef Nik Cole gets sick, she pops a few vitamin C tablets, heads into work and then tops it off with Alka-Seltzer Plus so she can power through her day.

She is one of nearly 7 million food service workers in the United States who is forced to go without pay if she is too sick to work. Although 75 percent of Americans receive some paid sick days, government and industry data show that only 25 percent of food service workers have such benefits.

“I would have to have a fever and be really weak in order to call off for work,” said Cole, 40, who has worked in food service for 15 years and has never had paid sick leave. “If you aren’t here, you don’t get paid. And there is no way for you to really make up the hours.”

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Coronavirus, on the other hand, dies within two to nine days, preliminary research shows.

Cole, the head chef at a vegan restaurant called the Kitchen, is trying to set an example of proper sanitation for other employees. She said she routinely sprays surfaces with Lysol, frequently washes her hands and uses hand sanitizer.

Cole said customers can also infect food workers, so a hand-washing station and a bottle of hand sanitizer is located at the front of the restaurant. “We can’t afford to get sick as employees — please wash your hands, too!” she said in a phone interview from the restaurant.

The National Restaurant Association has renewed efforts to reeducate workers about safe food-handling procedures in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Industry research groups say that the virus has not affected business, except in some regions that specialize in Asian cuisine.

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The National Restaurant Association said the potent threat of the coronavirus — and the tight intersection between American consumers and the food service industry — may fuel a movement to provide more workers with paid sick days.

“Coronavirus has a unique quarantine and recovery period that transcends the traditional policy debates surrounding paid sick leave,” said Vanessa Sink, spokeswoman for the association. “Tackling this challenge will require that employees, businesses and government officials come together and follow proven procedures to protect the health of employees, customers and communities.”

New research shows that laws requiring businesses to offer paid sick days to service workers may help. Two Cornell University researchers published a report last month that revealed that influenza infection rates dropped by 11 percent in the first year after legislatures in 10 states required employers to offer paid sick leave.

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Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced legislation last year that would require all businesses with 15 or more employees to give their workers an opportunity to earn up to seven days a year of paid sick leave. The sick days could be used to recover from an illness, get preventive care, tend to a sick family member or attend meetings related to the health or disability of a child.

Her legislation did not get traction — but that was before the coronavirus struck. Now, a congressional hearing has been scheduled for next week to discuss ways to resurrect the proposed law.

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