. . . in Support of National Food Safety Education Month–That is, if it was really serious about food safety.

You may or may not know this, but this month, September 2009, is the 15th annual National Food Safety Education Month (NFSEM).  According to its creator, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), NFSEM “is an annual campaign to heighten the awareness about the importance of food safety education.” NFSEM was:

Created in 1994 to heighten the awareness about the importance of food safety education. Each year a new theme and free training activities and posters are created for the restaurant and foodservice industry to help reinforce proper food safety practices and procedures.

This year’s theme is “Food Safety Thrives When You Focus on Five.”

Although laudable, the five areas of proposed focus are about as basic as food safety principles can be.  They are: (1) avoid purchasing food from unsafe sources; (2) clean and sanitize correctly; (3) prevent cross-contamination; (4) avoid time-temperature abuse; and (5) practice personal hygiene. (To review the training materials produced by NRAEF, see: http://www.servsafe.com/nfsem/default.aspx)  Not much to quibble with here.  But while laudable, is any of this enough?  Hardly.

For many years, I have been a strong proponent of something that would be truly innovative–even revolutionary–if it was to be adopted by the restaurant industry.  Something that would achieve significant and measurable improvements in food safety, especially as it relates to the thousands upon millions of non-outbreak (or “sporadic”) illnesses caused by contaminated restaurant food each year.  And what would this revolutionary innovation be?  Affordable health insurance and paid sick-days for all food-service employees.  (Note the interesting intersection here between food safety and health care reform, something that my law partner, Bill Marler, has also noticed.)

The fifth lesson in this month’s education campaign emphasizes the importance of personal hygiene, mostly focusing on hand washing.  But the lesson also mentions an item of equal importance: “coming to work sick can cause foodborne illness.”  It also reminds that employees should tell their “manager if you have any of the following symptoms: vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), or sore throat with fever.” What the lesson does not explain, however, is how an employee will be able to pay their rent if they miss three days of work because of diarrhea.  Nor does it explain how or why an employee should go to the doctor for a stool culture to see if the symptoms are due to a Salmonella infection when the cost of the doctor visit will not be covered by health insurance and thus will come out of the employee’s pocket.

There is also the issue of how easy it is to get a shift covered when you work in a restaurant.  When I was a waiter, back a few years longer than I care to remember, one of the biggest challenges was to get someone to cover your shift, something that you were expected to do on your own.  So when deciding whether the bout of diarrhea is serious enough to call in sick to work, a worker’s economic concerns will be buttressed by practical ones.  With restaurants running as lean a staff as possible to keep labor costs down, there are, as a result, not enough workers available to cover shifts when a person needs or wants to call in sick.  And, believe me, whatever a manager might say on the record, the employees that are willing to work no matter what are the ones that get the praise, and the better shifts.  Few things will get someone relegated to shifts that no one else wants faster than a reputation for calling in sick. Or it will get you fired.

The reality of working as a food service worker is economically rather grim.  According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-2009 Edition:

In May 2006, median hourly wage-and-salary earnings (including tips) of waiters and waitresses were $7.14. The middle 50 percent earned between $6.42 and $9.14. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $5.78, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $12.46 an hour.

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Median hourly wage-and-salary earnings of combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food, were $7.24. The middle 50 percent earned between $6.47 and $8.46. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $5.79, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $10.16 an hour.

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Median annual wage-and-salary earnings of restaurant cooks were $20,340 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,860 and $24,260. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,370, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $28,850.

And so, despite the meager pay and lack of benefits that food servers and cooks earn each year, the food safety precaution that the restaurant industry relies on to protect customers from much of foodborne illness is the expectation that these employees will decide on their own to stay home.  In other words, the restaurant industry expects its employees to act counter to their own economic interests by staying home each and every time they have a bout of diarrhea, or any other illness that is not so severe that it keeps them involuntarily bedridden. 

Such naïveté would be incomprehensible but for the profit motive that so clearly stands behind it.  While the restaurant industry expects us to uncritically accept the cost-benefit analysis that concludes that it is too expensive to provide paid sick-days and affordable health insurance, why does it turn a blind eye to the cost-benefit analysis that its employees do when deciding whether to work while sick? If it is acceptable for a restaurant to put its bottom-line ahead of food safety, then why is it not also acceptable for food service workers to do the same thing?  A bit of a double standard, I’d say.  If the industry does not want its employees to work while sick, then it should be willing to compensate them for the time lost.  And if a doctor’s visit is required to confirm the illness (or, better yet, find out if it is a communicable disease), then the restaurant must be willing, at minimum, to pay for the doctor visit.  Fair is fair.

Finally, what makes the industry position particularly hard to defend is the fact that its economic argument seems to be more an assumption than a fact.  Take a look at the experience of the 39-restaurant Burgerville chain, as reported in the Wall Street Journal:

Four years ago, executives of Burgerville, a regional restaurant chain, agreed to pay at least 90% of health-care premiums for hourly employees who work at least 20 hours a week. Today, the executives say the unusual move has saved money by cutting turnover, boosting sales and improving productivity.

Burgerville’s experience is notable for the food-service industry, where turnover is high and fewer than half of chains offer health insurance for part-time hourly employees, according to People Report, a research firm. The chains that do offer benefits pay on average 49% of the cost for employees working at least 30 hours a week, People Report says.

Burgerville’s initiative “not only improves quality of service but it saves money by not having to replace staff as frequently,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago consulting and research firm for the food


And then there is Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, in Seattle, and Costco, also based there. Both companies pay their employees well, offer full benefits, and, according to a story in the Seattle Times Magazine, “still make money, goo-gobs of money.” See “Good Business, Two Local Companies Are Proving It Pays To Do Well By Workers.” 

The just-mentioned companies provide only anecdotal evidence, but evidence it nonetheless is.  The bottom-line is not necessarily harmed by providing foodservice workers with health insurance, including paid sick-days.  In fact, as these companies have shown, doing the right thing by your employees can actually be more profitable than not doing so.  Even better, there is simply no question that foodservice workers are less likely to work while sick if they can take the day off, and get medical care, without putting themselves at risk of being evicted for unpaid rent.  So maybe the theme for next year’s National Food Safety Education Month should be one that is directed at the nation’s restaurant industry–Insure Your Employees to Insure Food Safety.