February 16, 2006
Lansing State Journal (Michigan)

The norovirus outbreak at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Delta Township inspired another outbreak – of restaurant workers, as well as their friends and relatives, eager to tell me why what happened at Carrabba’s was bound to happen somewhere.

Many, in fact, expressed surprise that it doesn’t happen more often. The reason most often cited: strong disincentives for restaurant workers to stay home when they’re sick.

In other words: no work, no pay.

“What happened at Carrabba’s could occur at any of our local eateries,” wrote Karen Sutliff of Lansing.

“Not because their kitchens are not clean, not because they don’t follow all of the safety standards, but because sick employees report to work.”

A Carrabba’s employee infected with the norovirus worked Jan. 28 and Jan. 29.
More than 400 people who ate at the restaurant that weekend became ill.
Sutliff’s e-mail continued: “There is no excuse for jeopardizing the health of another, but I suspect it was not intentional.

“I also work in the service industry, and I know that there is an internal peer pressure to report to work even when you are ill, not to mention that a day without pay can be crucial for some families.

“I think the public needs to understand and accept the fact that this could happen anywhere, even with all of the safety standards in place.”

Food for thought

Many of the people I’ve heard from don’t want their names used, for fear it would jeopardize their jobs or the jobs of others.

But Sara Shook of Holt was determined to get the word out. In an e-mail, she

“Like most food-service employees, my boyfriend, who works for a prominent East Lansing restaurant, gets no paid ‘sick days.’

“Also, he has been told specifically that if he didn’t get a doctor’s excuse to miss work, he could consider himself fired.

“The catch is that he’s reluctant to go to the doctor because he doesn’t have health insurance. How can you expect a part-time cook to pay for full health benefits?

“I can tell you he has been to work many times with the flu, fevers and colds, but not sick enough to go to the doctor and pay $80 for a note that says he is contagious.

“Many people don’t know, or care, about situations like this until a disaster happens.”

Not uncommon

Audrey Weber of East Lansing told me about her daughter, an employee at a local restaurant, being offered three options:

Report for work, despite the fact that she was sick.
Find somebody to cover the shift she would miss.
Seek employment elsewhere.

“I offered to work for her,” Weber said, “but she did not think I would fit in.”
The mother added: “I am very sad to say that my daughter and her friends have all worked when they were sick because their boss wouldn’t let them go home.”

Of course, restaurant employees are hardly alone in their inability to draw their pay when they’re sick. As the State Journal reported Sunday, only 69 percent of full-time U.S. workers – and 23 percent of part-time workers – get paid sick leave.

Responding to my inquiry Wednesday, Andy Deloney of the Michigan Restaurant Association referred to the federal food code, which bans restaurant workers with certain illnesses from duties that would put their customers at risk.