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As Coronavirus Spreads, the Vulnerable Workers Who Prepare and Serve Your Food Probably Don’t Have Sick Leave

Mar 5, 2020 / News Item / Eater — Jaya Saxena

In its overview of the novel coronavirus, the CDC has a few recommendations: Wash your hands thoroughly, avoid people who are sick, and importantly, stay at home if you are sick. Guidelines say symptoms could take up to 14 days to show up, so when possible, people who’ve traveled to areas where the new coronavirus has a stronger presence (China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Mongolia, Italy, Japan, Macau, and Iran as of publishing) are encouraged to self-isolate for those two weeks. It’s public health in action, ideally meant to protect as many people as possible from getting sick.

But anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant probably sees these recommendations as a fantasy. There’s no federal requirements for paid sick leave in the U.S., and restaurants and delivery services are notoriously hostile to shift workers calling in sick. In 2015, Whitney Filloon wrote for Eater that a vast majority of food workers will work while they’re ill, with 45 percent saying they “can’t afford to lose pay.” Recently, writer Lauren Hough tweeted about “how many service industry workers will continue going to work” throughout the pandemic because they won’t get paid otherwise; she received hundreds of responses detailing just what those in the food industry are expected to do. “Called in sick as a waitress with 105 fever. Was told if I didn’t come to work I was fired,” responded one person. “I worked food service for 9 years. The only times I was allowed to call out were when I was hospitalized,” said another.

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Restaurants will keep cooking and drivers will keep delivering (possibly to people under the 14-day quarantine), because they literally can’t afford not to. And, at least so far, restaurants and delivery services show few signs of changing these conditions.

In a statement to Eater, Grubhub said “we are focused on prioritizing the health and safety of our drivers, diners, restaurant partners and employees during this challenging time. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, including assessing and analyzing the potential impact on our business.” However, the company did not respond to questions about a sick leave policy for drivers; according to reviews on Glassdoor, paid sick days aren’t offered to drivers on contract, and those who cancel scheduled shifts are penalized.

Uber Eats offered a similar statement, saying “we remain in close contact with local public health organizations and will continue to follow their recommendations,” and that it haspublished guidelines for drivers in case of an outbreak, advising them to keep their cars clean, wash their hands often, and to stay home if they have even a “mild illness.” However, Uber Eats also does not provide drivers with paid time off, so it’s not hard to imagine that drivers who need money would ignore advice to stay home.

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One way restaurant workers have been able to get better benefits, which allow them to actually follow guidelines like “stay home if you think you might have a virus,” is through labor organizing. G, a server in a hotel restaurant and an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, says he’s lucky that the hotel he works at is unionized and they receive paid sick leave, but that’s not been the case in every other restaurant he’s worked at. 

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G notes that even when there are laws requiring paid sick leave, employers don’t always honor them. “I interviewed two organizers with the Little Big Union,” he said, “and even though [Oregon’s] legislature passed a law for paid sick leave, the employers weren’t honoring it. They don’t have to. There’s no one to hold them accountable.” Organization has been one way to actually get employers to provide benefits and adhere to them.

Some chains are making changes. Trader Joe’s, whose employees recently moved to unionize, is allowing employees to be reimbursed for sick time taken for “respiratory illness.” And Starbucks said in a memo that employees are encouraged to stay home if they feel ill. Crucially, Starbucks provides paid sick leave for workers. 

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