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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 / Washignton 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.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in five workers have reported working at least once in the previous year while sick with vomiting or diarrhea.

As the threat of the coronavirus grows in the United States, public-health experts are concerned about it being spread by sickened food service workers who prepare, serve and deliver a significant share of the meals consumers eat each day.

Americans depend heavily on food service workers. Half of all the money spent on food in the United States is for meals prepared in restaurants, cafeterias, food trucks and delis, according to Technomic, a restaurant industry research group. That amounts to about one-quarter of all meals Americans consume.

The food service industry is already wrestling with the long-standing threat of another disease called norovirus, which causes nearly 60 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks. Of the reported outbreaks, 70 percent are caused by infected food workers, the CDC says.

The methods used to reduce the spread of norovirus during food preparation are the same as they are for coronavirus: sanitizing surfaces, proper and frequent hand washing, coughing into an elbow instead of a hand.

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Benjamin Chapman, a food safety expert at North Carolina State University who studies norovirus and other food-borne diseases, said the good news for consumers is that coronavirus is much easier to kill with standard sanitation products and procedures.

“Norovirus is very resistant to disinfection,” Chapman said. “It can persist for months in labs.” 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.

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Consumer trends show that Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with having meals regularly delivered to their homes.

For example, Grubhub, which delivers meals from takeout and full-service restaurants to customers’ homes, experienced explosive growth in recent years. From 2014 to 2019, the company said it went from delivering at least one meal a year to 5 million people to delivering at least one meal a year to 22.6 million people.

The restaurant industry plays a large role in the U.S. economy. It employs about 10 percent of the private sector workforce in about 615,000 restaurants around the country.

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.

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.

“This virus is so highly contagious, it is everyone’s problem . . . not just service workers,” Murray said in an interview. “Everybody gets hurt.”

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