Sick People Are Cooking Your Dinner

"Backed Into the Corner" is the provocative name of a new research report that shows almost nine out of ten Miami restaurant workers do not receive any paid sick days and that nearly 50 percent of those employees have gone to work sick. An even larger majority -- 63.6 percent -- said they had no access to health care.

The report was released at Tap Tap restaurant this week by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Miami (ROC-Miami) and the Miami-Dade Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces. The latter is a coalition of those advocating legislation that would mandate paid sick days for Miami-Dade workers. Thousands of extensive interviews were conducted for the study, the main gist of which is that restaurant employees routinely work while ill because they get paid so little that they can't afford to lose the money.

The median hourly wage of a Miami-Dade restaurant worker is $9.02.

And how about this appetizing finding: "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed 426 restaurants selected at random in nine states and discovered that 12 percent of food workers had worked while sick with vomiting or diarrhea."

This is a major issue locally, because the restaurant industry is now the third-largest private sector in the Miami-Dade region. It employs 72,700 workers. And that's not even including Michael Bloise, who's between jobs.

Here is how the study puts it:

"The risk of spreading illness is particularly dangerous in the restaurant industry where workers receive the least access to paid sick days and the lowest wages -- while handling millions of meals per day. Miami workers fall squarely into this picture. The combination of no paid sick days and low wages backs workers into a corner; they must work sick to get by."

Some of the numbers:

  • Only 11.4 percent of Miami-Dade restaurant workers have access to paid sick days.
  • 47.6 percent of those workers report having worked while sick.
  • More than 40 percent of employees who worked while sick reported coughing or sneezing while handling food.
  • More than one in ten reported infecting their co-workers.
  • 74 percent of those who worked while sick said they did so because they couldn't afford to take the day off without pay.
  • More than 20 percent of workers were uncomfortable asking for a day off when sick because they feared retribution from their employer; another 15 percent didn't think they could take off even if they needed to.
  • Only 8.8 percent of employees worked for employers that provided full or partial health coverage.

The report recommends countywide legislation that mandates earned paid sick days, and legislation that ensures that the health-care needs of Miami-Dade restaurant workers are met. The report likewise suggests education for employers so they can understand how sick employees affect the health of other workers and customers. Plus it calls for paying restaurant workers better wages.

Restaurant workers have it pretty bad in comparison to most others. This is not a revelation -- the industry is known for crazy-hard work, long hours, low pay, and no benefits. Like the weather, everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.

Kudos to these groups for bringing attention to the plight of restaurant employees, and to Tap Tap for hosting the event. A tip of the toque also goes to Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan (District 1) for showing up at the Tap Tap news conference and for pushing the legislation.

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