Skip to main content

Fight flu, give restaurant workers paid sick leave

By Saru Jayaraman, Special to CNN
updated 2:56 PM EST, Wed January 30, 2013
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
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT