Skip to main content

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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

How not to get the flu while traveling
How do you get the flu?
Inside a flu vaccine lab

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT