News on Wellness

Sick Food Workers Could Cause A Public Health Crisis

Every day, millions of Americans go out to eat, never thinking that they could get an infectious disease because the worker that prepared their food is sick. Food workers do everything from grow and process food to cook and serve it. Sick food workers have the potential to create serious public health consequences. The majority of cases of norovirus, the leading cause of foodborne illnesses, are linked to sick workers in the food industry.

According to the results of a recent survey, more than half of workers in the food industry report that they “always” or “frequently” go to work when they’re sick. Another 38 percent reported that they go to work sick “sometimes.” About 45 percent reported that they go to work when ill because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” About 46 percent said they do not take time off during illnesses because they “don’t want to let co-workers down.”

The study, commissioned by Alchemy in conjunction with the Center for Research and Public Policy, was conducted to learn more about the experience of food workers. More than 1,200 food workers in the U.S. and Canada were polled for the survey in July. The results of previous studies on this subject have prompted some states and some businesses in the food industry to change their sick leave practices.

Some people might be tempted to point a finger at the workers for going to work sick. However, lot of these workers actually depend on every single one of the days that they work for money. In the survey, 90 percent of the workers polled said they feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers.

Many American workers cannot call in sick without getting punished or losing pay. According to a study by Oliva’s Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United conducted in 2012, 79 percent of food workers did not have paid sick days or did not know whether they did. The 2012 report also found that more than half of the workers polled had worked when they were sick.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many of the lowest-paying jobs in America are in the food industry. Workers making minimum wage, or the federal subminimum “tipped” wage of $2.13 per hour, just can’t take an unpaid day off of work without significant financial repercussions. Raising the wages of food workers might give them more flexibility to take an unpaid day when needed.

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