Health care for restaurant workers would benefit all

By Eleanor Blick

“A cobb salad with a side of common cold and a Southwestern wrap with strep throat sauce, please.”

In the past year, almost two-thirds of restaurant employees worked while sick, according to a report published on Sept. 30 by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. The study described people sneezing on food, crouching behind counters to blow their noses and supervisors having little sympathy for sick workers. Some of those interviewed said if they couldn’t come to work, they risked more than just a day’s pay. They risked losing their jobs.

Critics argue the findings in “Serving While Sick” were skewed to promote the group’s agenda for fairer labor conditions for the U.S. restaurant industry’s more-than 10 million employees. But the numbers are hardly surprising to those of us who have steamed milk, slung burgers or waited tables.

I have been a barista on and off since age 15. I should not have been allowed to use an espresso machine until age 16—the first of many Department of Labor violations overlooked throughout my years in the restaurant industry.

In those years, I have gone to work while sick. So have my co-workers. We have gotten each other sick. We would rotate responsibilities so the ill workers avoided being near food as much as possible, but during busy periods the system

broke down.

If it was an illness a few doses of DayQuil couldn’t temporarily relieve, the shift had to be covered one way or another. This usually meant someone had to work six, seven, sometimes eight days in a row, then get grief from management when he or she went into overtime hours, which require paying time-and-a-half. I recall working 12 days in a row on one occasion.

Approximately 88 percent of workers ROC-United surveyed said they don’t get paid for sick days. Service workers are paid hourly, with a national median of $8.59 per hour. Calling in sick means an even smaller paycheck. Perhaps an insignificant detail for some, but for others, it might mean late bills or not enough to pay for a child’s school supplies. When I had to miss work, it meant a Christmas without much money for presents and weeks of scrounging the bottom of my cupboards before I made enough money for groceries again.

Many workers simply can’t afford medical treatment. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.7 percent of Americans currently do not have health insurance. ROC-United reported 62 percent of restaurant workers are uninsured and 90 percent are not offered any benefits through their job. Of the 4,563 total employees surveyed or interviewed, 92 percent, insured and uninsured, said they avoided doctor visits because of cost.

It is obvious sickness and sanitation should be taken seriously within the restaurant industry, and it is clear the lack of benefits provided to restaurant employees poses several safety threats. If an employee comes to work sick, co-workers are at risk of getting sick. Germs could be passed to customers, and food could be contaminated. Depending on the circumstance in which food is prepared, any germs transferred could potentially infect customers.

Those surveyed by ROC-United also reported hazardous conditions. Nearly half of restaurant employees had cut or burned themselves at work, and one-fifth said they had chronic pain caused or worsened by their job.

After time off because of an abdominal surgery, I was so financially desperate to get back to work I returned only being able to lift a few pounds, and I could barely bend over. Another Department of Labor violation: Employees need to return with a doctor’s note clearing them to work again after injury or illness. Yet, most restaurant employees don’t have access to affordable health care in order to receive treatment and get such a note.

The disproportionate number of restaurant employees left without access to adequate health care benefits puts many people at potential risk. Sickness must be treated more carefully in the food industry than in other low-wage industries, although many industries suffer from the same inadequate coverage level.

Providing restaurant workers with the health care resources they clearly need can’t wait until 2014 when employers with more than 50 employees are required to provide health coverage. Employers need to take the responsibility to offer coverage as soon as possible to protect employees and customers. Hopefully other low-wage, hourly pay industries will have the sense to follow suit.