Sick Leaves

Infected workers account for the majority of foodborne illnesses. Paid sick leave would keep all of us healthier.

In December 2015, at least 80 students in Boston fell sick after eating at Chipotle. The chain was already in trouble for a series of outbreaks in nine states involving a potentially deadly form of E. coli bacteria, but the Boston outbreak was different – local health officials didn’t blame the food, but a sick employee.

Health inspectors found that patrons had fallen ill from the highly contagious norovirus – which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say is responsible for as many as 21 million cases of “stomach flu” every year. Even though Chipotle began offering its employees paid sick leave beginning in July 2015, inspectors found that a sick employee had worked a full shift the Thursday before the outbreak began.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of sick workers serving food is all too common, according to research by the nonprofit CLASP. In the low-wage world of food service, only a tiny fraction of workers have access to paid sick leave, which means that many workers are forced to come to work when they’re ill, at the risk of losing their paychecks or their jobs. According to a forthcoming issue brief from CLASP, nearly 9 in 10 restaurant workers have no access to paid sick days, and as many as two-thirds report “cooking, preparing, and serving food while sick.”

The result is a price that both consumers and businesses pay. The CDC reports that infected workers cause as many as 70 percent of the norovirus outbreaks related to contaminated food. And while norovirus might be relatively mild compared to other foodborne illnesses such as salmonella or listeriosis, the CDC says it still accounts for 400,000 emergency room visits a year, especially among children, and contributes to as many as 71,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths, particularly among young children and seniors.

If you add in the cost of thousands of hours of lost productivity due to even mild cases of the stomach flu, CLASP’s research finds that the overall toll of foodborne illness on the economy every year is as much as $152 billion.

There is, of course, a common-sense solution for reducing the number of illnesses spread by sick workers in the restaurant and food service industries: paid sick leave.

Employees with access to paid sick leave are more likely to stay at home when they’re ill, thus keeping their co-workers and customers healthy. According to a report by the Department of Labor, “55 percent of workers not eligible for paid sick time reported going to work with a contagious illness, compared to 37 percent of those with sick time.” The same report cited a study finding that as many as five million cases of H1N1 flu could have been avoided in 2009, had universal sick leave been available.

Nevertheless, the number of jurisdictions that guarantee access to paid sick leave is still small. As of July 2015, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 23 jurisdictions nationwide had or were putting into place paid sick leave laws, including Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and 18 cities, including New York, Seattle, and Philadelphia.

While industry groups, such as the National Restaurant Association, have traditionally opposed paid sick leave mandates as too costly or restrictive, supporting the availability of leave might actually make better business sense in the long run.

Just ask Chipotle. While Chipotle stock was trading as high as $747 per share in October 2015, news of repeated outbreaks – including the one in Boston – have led share prices to fall to $404 as of January 12, 2016.

Embracing access to paid sick leave would not only benefit workers and consumers – but employers too.

Related: How the hyper-efficiencies of industrial food production could be compromising food safety.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is senior fellow and director of domestic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.