Swine Flu, Sick Days and Food Service | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Swine Flu, Sick Days and Food Service

As H1N1–swine flu spreads, so do worries about calling in sick. For many workers, choosing to stay home can mean no pay and sometimes losing a job—a prospect that might be even scarier than the flu in this economy. A lot of the people without paid sick days are in the service industries, and at the top of that list is a group you might not want to hear about.

HILL: I'm here in the middle of busy food court. It's lunch time. People all around me are eating their fried chicken, burritos, hamburgers, pretty much anything you can name. I don't know the specific situations of the people who work here, who make all this food, but I know a ton of people in the food industry don't get paid sick days.

LAKIN: I've had lots of different jobs, as a line cook, as a sous chef, as an executive chef.

That's Eddie Lakin. He counts 15 years in the food service business.

LAKIN: I've never had paid sick time, even as a corporate employee, even as a salaried person with paid vacation days; I've never had a job with a sick day or a personal day.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research—an advocacy group—looked at job benefits nationally. It found as many as 85-percent of food service workers don't have paid sick days—the worst showing for any group. By comparison, ONLY about 16 percent of people in the legal profession don't get paid when they call in.

Eddie Lakin says there've been plenty of times where he and his restaurant co-workers, have gone into work sick. Part of it, he says, is an unwritten rule in professional kitchens.

LAKIN: You don't call in sick unless you are too sick to stand up.

Lakin says some workers, especially those who get paid by the hour, come in because they need the money. Others don't want to give the boss a reason to think they aren't committed to the job, which isn't a bad instinct. Dr Tom Smith is with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

SMITH: We found that one out of every six workers have actually been fired, demoted or otherwise punished for taking time off because they weren't covered by paid sick days.

According to Smith's research, which looks at workers broadly not just the food industry, people without paid sick days are more likely to go to work when they feel like crap. Sixty-eight percent of people without paid sick days have gone in with a contagious illness like the flu. The recession and tenuous labor market add to the pressure.

SMITH: For those who don't have paid sick days, they are even less likely to take the time off if they come down with the flu, fearing that they would either lose their job or that that loss of income-perhaps their hours have already been cut back-would push them into an untenable economic situation.

Smith says Hispanic workers are less likely to get paid sick days than non-Hispanics, lower income workers less likely than higher income workers.

And remember that list I talked about earlier—with food workers among the least likely to have sick days? Does that mean we should all avoid eating out during this flu outbreak?

Public health expert Mark Dworkin at UIC says nope, it's OK to go ahead and order that burger.

DWORKIN: It hasn't changed my eating out habits, and I don't have any recommendation that it should change others at this time.

He says there is some theoretical risk that a sick person could touch your food or your plate and hand it to you. But there's no data to show it's driven the spread of flu in the past. Flu isn't a food born illness.

Swine flu, and all the attention it's getting, has stirred up a cautious optimism among proponents of mandated paid sick days. A national bill could be introduced by the end of the month. And in Illinois, a bill that would require employers to pay for up to 7 days of sick leave a year was introduced in February; it's currently in the Rules Committee.

There is concern among some in the restaurant industry that mandating benefits could make it hard for already struggling businesses to survive the economic downturn and could force them to cut jobs.

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