Want Some Flu in Your Fries? The Case for a Sick-Leave Bill

Forget about the plight of the poor restaurant worker. Do you want your waitress sneezing in your sandwich?

Thanks to my four-year-old son and his preschool, our household has been hotbed of disease and pestilence this winter. In the last six weeks, we’ve collectively experienced a cold, the pinkeye, and then a second type of cold whose cough is different but more persistent from the first. Few of my friends and colleagues want to be around me right now, because every conversation is sooner or later interrupted by furious spluttering and hacking as a loogie tries to work its way from from my lungs and into the open air. I’m tired, and I’m gross, but I’ve kept working almost every step of the way.

Don’t you wish I was serving you food?

No? Well, then: You might want to consider where you throw your support over the next few days as a “left-wing” cabal in City Council attempts to revive the sick-leave bill for restaurant workers that Mayor Nutter vetoed last year.

We don’t know the precise details of the bill, which is expected to be introduced Thursday. There will be some differences between it and the bill Nutter vetoed, which guaranteed workers varying levels of sick leave depending on the size of the company they worked for. There’s always the possibility that the new bill will be written to inflict the maximum possible expense and burden on Philadelphia employers because, well, we’re awfully good at rolling that way around here.

But the case for some kind of sick leave bill is easy to make: You don’t do it to protect the workers or coddle them. You do it to protect their customers.

Don’t get me wrong: Restaurant workers in Philadelphia have it tough. A survey last year from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United—which has been laying the groundwork for the new bill—showed that most such workers live below the poverty line. Twelve percent rely on the emergency room for health care, and another 19 percent rely on public health insurance programs.

Let’s pretend none of that matters, though, because one pertinent number remains: 64.6.

That’s the percentage of Philadelphia restaurant workers who said they have worked while sick, either because they couldn’t afford the day off without pay, or because they were afraid of being fired for staying home. And that number’s actually pretty unremarkable: It’s similar to other studies that show two-thirds of Americans go to work while sick with an infectious disease.

Want the flu with your fries? Some pertussis with your poutine? A cold with your cold beer? Because that’s what the current system is designed to provide.

Opposition to the bill comes from restaurant owners, who fear getting stuck (essentially) subsidizing a week of vacation for their workers. But their opposition is built on a denial that sick workers work sick, swearing instead that the workers use an informal system to take time off and make it up later.

“The truth is, [the employee will] make up that income when they trade with somebody else. You’re going to be sick one day and you work the following Friday when you trade with another employee for picking up your shift,” Patrick Conway, CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging association, told Philadelphia Weekly in October. “It works out very well. So there’s really, I think, it’s a false notion that the industry has sick people coming in all the time to serve food to their patrons.”

If so, it’s a false notion being peddled by workers themselves.

Philadelphia isn’t exactly a pioneer on this issue. Other cities have adopted sick-leave bills. The result? Employees with access to five guaranteed days of sick leave a year usually use about half of that. The cost employers is often minimal—and often mitigated by increased worker loyalty and a reduction in training expenses needed in high-turnover establishments.

No one wants to burden small restaurant owners. At the same time, all restaurants—from the biggest to the smallest—have to meet minimum standards to safeguard the health of the public. We make businesses install sneeze guards on salad bars, spend money on refrigeration, and even buy unending boxes of plastic gloves, all in order to keep cooties away from the customers.

Isn’t it silly to let all those safeguards go to waste, while letting—nearly requiring—waiters and waitresses to keep their shoulders to the grindstone and sneezing on our sandwiches? Some costs of public safety must be paid. Let’s hope Council passes a sick leave bill this year.