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Fight flu, give restaurant workers paid sick leave

By Saru Jayaraman, Special to CNN
January 30, 2013 -- Updated 1956 GMT (0356 HKT)
Few restaurant workers get paid sick leave, so many come to work when they have the flu, says Saru Jarayaman.
Few restaurant workers get paid sick leave, so many come to work when they have the flu, says Saru Jarayaman.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Saru Jayaraman: Restaurant workers, who rarely have paid sick leave, can spread flu
  • She says minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13/hour; To earn living, they must come in
  • Jayaraman: Congress should pass Healthy Families Act, which would legislate sick leave

Editor's note: Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy organization, director of the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and author of the forthcoming book "Behind the Kitchen Door" (Cornell University Press, Feb. 2013).

(CNN) -- Like millions of Americans this winter, my toddler has the flu. The good news is that, unlike most of our nation's restaurant workers, my baby doesn't have to go to work sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting widespread flu in 47 states. During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, the Obama administration told people to stay home when they were sick. That's why it's important we understand that, according to research conducted by my organization, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, almost 90% of restaurant workers say they do not have access to paid sick leave.

Saru Jayaraman
Saru Jayaraman

Plus, given that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at just $2.13 an hour since 1991, two-thirds of our nation's cooks and servers and bussers report they cannot afford to stay home when they're sick, because they won't get paid and might even lose their jobs.

A 2011 study by the CDC found that 12% of almost 500 food service workers surveyed had experienced vomiting and diarrhea on two or more shifts in the previous year. What's more disgusting than that? That restaurant owners essentially force employees to come to work sick because they don't have paid sick days.

This month, 1.2 million people in England suffered from norovirus, also known as the "winter vomiting bug." Norovirus is commonly contracted through contaminated food.

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In 2009, a bartender with swine flu worked for several days at a Washington hot spot because, he told me, he couldn't afford to not go to work.

If we don't pay food industry workers decent wages and ensure they receive paid sick days, then no matter how much the FDA regulates the boiling temperature for processing cheese, restaurant workers will keep sneezing on our dinner and food-borne contamination and illness will continue to be a problem.

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The health of our nation's 10 million food service workers is intimately tied to the health of millions of Americans who routinely eat food prepared by someone else. One in six Americans gets sick from a food-borne illness every year, and when those instances can be traced to a single cause, in more than half of cases it's a restaurant. Specifically, research shows that somewhere between 48% to 93% of all food-borne norovirus outbreaks may be tracked back to sick food service workers.

The federal Healthy Families Act, expected to be re-introduced this year, would require all businesses with 15 or more employees to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave each year. San Francisco, Seattle, the District of Columbia and the state of Connecticut have already approved such legislation locally.

If we pay restaurant workers a living wage and ensure they can stay home when they're sick, that means fewer taxpayer dollars on public health emergencies and fewer stomach aches for diners as well.

When we get the flu, we just want to stay in bed and have someone care for us. We should allow restaurant workers the ability to do that, too. America would be a healthier place for it.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Saru Jayaraman.

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