Health officials: Lack of sick days leads to food-borne illnesses

We’ve been reporting quite a bit recently about the sanitary conditions of local restaurants and how much information about those conditions is or isn’t available to the public. (Click here to see our coverage of restaurant inspections.)

But one aspect of the story we haven’t touched on is the role employee health can play in whether customers get sick when they dine out at a restaurant.

At a recent meeting of the Champaign County Board of Health, Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said employees working while sick is one of the most common causes of food-borne illness outbreaks locally.

Food-borne illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli and Hepatitis A – which can resemble the intestinal flu – include symptoms such as abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration, according to the National Institutes of Health.

When restaurant employees come to work while experiencing such symptoms and handle food, they can transmit the diseases to diners.

“If you had diarrhea and vomiting, why would you come to work?” Pryde said. “Sick employees work in these low-end jobs because, if they don’t work, they get fired or, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.

“When you look in the restaurants at who’s working there, they can’t afford to lose a check,” she said.

As we reported on this blog previously, the average restaurant worker in Champaign County earned about $1,300 per month in the third quarter of last year, according to the U.S.Census Bureau. That’s about 62 percent less than the average worker overall.

Pryde said she believes paid sick leave for restaurant employees would be one of the best defenses against food-borne illnesses.

“All the poverty issues negatively impact public health,” she said.

But paid sick leave is uncommon in the restaurant industry.

Serving While Sick,” a 2010 report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a group that advocates on behalf of restaurant workers, found that, of more than 4,000 employees surveyed in cities across the country, about 88 percent did not have paid sick days.

In addition, about 63 percent said they had cooked and served food while ill, according to the report, which was funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Similarly, the Centers for Disease and Prevention’s Environmental Health Specialists Network reviewed 154 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that occurred from June 2006 to September 2007. The study found that 65 percent of workers at restaurants involved in the outbreaks did not have paid sick leave.

Illinois state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have required paid sick leave for workers in all industries who work 30 hours per week or more.But the bill did not make it out of committee.

The National Restaurant Association, however, opposes laws that would impose such requirements on restaurant owners, a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

“Inflexible, costly, one-size-fits-all paid leave mandates – particularly on small businesses like restaurants – take away an employer’s flexibility to design a benefits package uniquely tailored to their own workforce,” spokeswoman Sue Hensely said. “Facing a government mandate and a challenging economic environment, restaurants that care about their employees may find themselves having to adjust the workforce structure to accommodate inflexible policies, and the employees may be the ones who are negatively impacted.”

The association, which represents more than 380,000 businesses in the food-service industry, strongly supports the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation that “employees be excluded from work if they exhibit certain symptoms,” Hensley said.

“There is no greater priority for the restaurant industry than food safety,” she said. “Restaurants should have a system in place to ensure employees do not report to work when sick, and provide options to employees, such as trading shifts.

“Restaurants typically offer flexible work schedules and hours that best meet the needs of their workplace and their employees, and many restaurants offer paid sick leave through a paid time-off benefit structure.”

Pryde would like to see such policies become more common in the industry.

“Paid sick leave is good public health,” she said.

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