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Fast-Food Walkout: Does Worker Well-Being Affect Food Safety?

Thousands of fast-food workers in dozens of U.S. cities are reportedly set to stage a one-day national strike on Thursday to protest the industry’s low wages and predominant lack of basic benefits. Organizations representing restaurant employees say they expect it to be the largest-ever strike within the fast-food industry, which employs an estimated 4 million Americans.

Protest organizers have already held rolling one-day strikes starting this past November in cities such as New York, Chicago and Seattle, but Thursday will mark the first nationwide day of protest. Employees are asking for a minimum wage of $15 an hour, or the equivalent of $31,000 a year working full-time, up from the current federal minimum of $7.25, or around $15,000 a year full-time.

Raising wages and supplying basic benefits such as paid sick leave would not only boost worker well-being, but directly improve food safety and public health as well, said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC).

In 2010, ROC released a report titled “Serving While Sick,” which surveyed more than 4,000 restaurant workers. The survey found that 88 percent of those workers did not have paid sick days and 63 percent reported cooking and serving food while sick.

In turn, those sick workers have been linked to outbreaks of norovirus, hepatitis A and typhoid fever among customers.

In a similar study titled “Backed into the Corner,” 48 percent of restaurant employees reported working shifts while ill, while 11 percent said they had experienced diarrhea or vomiting during a restaurant shift. Workers who did not have paid sick leave were found to be twice as likely to work while sick compared with their counterparts who did receive paid sick time.

The problem, Jayaraman said, is that restaurant workers simply cannot afford to take time off from work, even if they are severely ill. Of those who worked while sick, 74 percent said they could not afford to take the day off without pay, and 27 percent said they coughed or sneezed while handling food.

“Even if you’ve got hepatitis A, if you’re living on minimum wage or living off your tips and don’t get paid to stay home, you’re going to go to work regardless of your condition,” she told Food Safety News.

Low wages also equate to poor living conditions for fast-food employees, Jayaraman added. A portion of workers report being homeless or home-insecure, meaning that they may not have access to showers or other necessities for personal hygiene.

Restaurants found to have shortchanged employees or committed overtime pay violations were also found more likely than restaurants without labor violations to put the safety of employees and customers at risk.

When asked in an ROC survey if they had ever been pressured to cut corners in a way that might have risked public health, 44 percent of workers who experienced wage violations said yes, while 13 percent of workers at non-violating restaurants did. Similarly, 37 percent of workers at wage-violating restaurants said they did not receive health and safety training, while 17 percent of those without violations did.

President Obama has recently asked Congress raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. A July 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 73 percent of Americans favored raising the minimum wage to $10.

Those who oppose raising the minimum wage say it would hurt job creation and lead to higher rates of unemployment.

The cities of San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle have ordinances in place that require employers to provide paid sick leave to their workers, including those in the restaurant industry.

© Food Safety News
  • Russell La Claire

    If only Common Sense really were common.

  • Joepalooka1

    I’ll guess that food service employees are much like employees in other industries and occasionally work with ‘a cold’ but I have seldom (very seldom) seen an evidently ill / contagious food service employee making food (they should of course be sent home). Do workers prefer to work while somewhat ‘under the weather’ (in every industry)? Seems so. With the food service industry (esp ‘fast food’) being largely about 2-3 hour meal periods, many if not most food service workers have part-time hours (lunch is over at 2:00…what are they gonna do, stand around?). Part-time workers in any industry typically have fewer bennies than their fulltime counterparts.

  • Food Dude

    There is a disconnect in the above article. ROC wants higher hourly wages. The author then attempts to make the case for higher wages by citing a lack of paid sick leave as contributing to increased food borne illness. But higher hourly wages is not the same thing as paid sick leave. And granting the one will not acheive the other; you’ll just end up with higher paid restaurant workers on the job while ill.

    • JAndrewsFSN

      Hi Food Dude,

      Thanks for the comment, and I certainly see your point.

      The fast food worker strike is a big piece of news in the food realm this week, and I saw an opportunity to use the issue as a platform to pose a related question more relevant to our readership: Does worker well-being affect food safety? Seeing as 74 percent of workers who work while ill cite not being able to afford to take a day off as the reason, the issues of low wages and paid sick time seem to be intertwined.

  • Oginikwe

    We were the first in our circle of friends and family to quit eating out, especially at fast food places. After numerous and a surprisingly wide variety of food borne illnesses garnered at restaurants, hardly anyone we know eats out anymore. When they do, it’s something relatively safe like french fries or baked potatoes. We cook, we freeze and can, and we share.

  • Barb3000

    The company I worked for for several years in Washington state had paid sick leave alright but you had to be off 5 days before the paid sick leave kicked in. That was a loophole in the law that allowed companies like this one to cheat the employee. The management knew that none of the employees could afford to be off for that long without pay. They would be over what ever the illness was in that time. So its not all its cracked up to be. This is the same outfit that had a manager laugh at me when I asked why they didn’t provide dental coverage for the employees.

  • ethanspapa

    This is nothing new . When a Lad growing up, my first job after a paper route, shoveling driveways and mowing lawns was to work in the kitchen of a Delicatessen. The back rooms were filthy with all sorts of vermin running around plus the other workers never used soap and water after going to the bathroom. Where were the government paid civil servant health inspectors.that were to inspect the premises ? Down the street at a pub having a 3-4 hour liquid lunch. When retired, received a million dollar annuity in retirement benefits until he/she and spouse were both on the other side of the grass. At least we have audio visual security now where they can be observed. Plus we have increasingly become a very litigious society.

  • Joepalooka1

    soooo correct. It is just nearly laughable that the largely (and grossly) misinformed public forms such certain, while incorrect positions. If the general public adhered to safe sanitation as much as most restaurants do, foodborne illness would drop (the farm to table issues would continue…for now). Another frustration is that the health departments are NOT proactive in educating the public (and as a result, the public continues to make baseless charges).

  • Guest

    When fast food workers were mostly teens trying to make enough money to live at home and pay tuition for college or a car they had the shelter of their parents’ health insurance to depend on. Now that students have been displaced by adults working for a non-living wage, working when sick is a concern for the worker and the consumer. The demographic shift in the age of people willing to work at entry level positions therefore demands wage readjustment. Naturally, better wages and benefits raise the cost of doing business and customers will notice prices increasing. I expect we’ll have less fast food outlets in a few years.

    • xolola

      The prices increase, anyway. I work at McDonald’s, and at this point in time, at least six meals on the menu cost more than I make per hour. Prices on the food have gone up at least 50cents to a dollar in the last year and half, but my wage has only increased by maybe 15cents. Roughly 90 per-cent of people who come through (either through the drive-through, or into the dining room) order off the dollar menu.