In a trend that could help reduce the threat of foodborne disease transmission by food-service workers, Seattle may join San Francisco, Washington D.C. and the state of Connecticut in requiring employers to provide paid sick leave.


A majority of Seattle City Council members have signaled their support for an ordinance mandating at least five paid sick days per year at all businesses with five or more full-time employees. The rule would affect establishments in business for at least two years, and is based on size – the larger the company the more paid sick days required, to a maximum of nine days each year.

The city estimates that more than 30,000 of the 190,000 Seattle workers without paid sick leave are in food-service or lodging industries. Nationally, the National Partnership for Women and Families estimates that 44 million American workers must forego pay if they call in sick.

Working while sick is a particular concern in food service because pathogens from trace amounts of fecal matter can contaminate food if infected employees don’t thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom. Public health authorities say no one should prepare or serve food to others if they have an illness with diarrhea or vomiting, or if they have had such an illness in the last three days.

It’s difficult to abide by those guidelines if calling in sick means going without income.

Advocates of paid sick leave say the policy could go a long way in stemming the incidence of norovirus infections, which can put apparently healthy people into intensive care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly half of all norovirus outbreaks in the U.S. are linked to ill food-service workers. 

Norovirus is one of the pathogens most easily spread, as evidenced by one high profile outbreak in 2008. In that incident, after a worker at a Chipotle restaurant in Kent, Ohio, came to work sick with norovirus, more than 500 patrons become violently ill. 

Weighed against the potential for substantial financial losses associated with foodborne illness outbreaks, paid sick leave could actually be cost effective for restaurants, the authors of a study published in the Journal of Food Protection said earlier this year.

In that study,  nearly 12 percent of the 491 food workers interviewed — in the presence of their managers — acknowledged they had come to work at least twice in the previous year while sick with vomiting and diarrhea. The researchers found that the busiest restaurants, especially restaurants that served more than 300 meals a day, were the most likely to have sick employees on duty.

The researchers concluded that the number of food handlers who work when ill would be reduced if there were no pressures to work while ill – if employees felt they could acknowledge their ailments and stay home and if sick employees didn’t have to find their own replacements to cover their shifts.