There's a good chance that the last restaurant meal you ate was touched at some point by a sick person. Gross, yes — but also an unfortunate reality of the industry. A new survey of food workers found that a vast majority of them reported working while they're ill, reports NPR.
1,200 people were polled for the survey, which included not only restaurant workers but also people who work at slaughter houses, food processing plants, dairies, bakeries, grocery store delis, and more — anyone who's on the front lines of the food industry getting their hands dirty, so to speak. The results revealed that 51 percent of food workers "always" or "frequently" worked when they were sick, and another 38 percent said they "sometimes" work through illness. Only 5.6 percent said they "never" went to work when they were sick.
Of course, for anyone who's ever worked in a restaurant, this is hardly news: In an industry where the majority of employees don't get benefits, taking a sick day is a luxury many simply can't afford. 45 percent of the surveyed workers said they went to work when they were sick because they "can't afford to lose pay."
Besides the financial issue, kitchen culture generally dictates that restaurant workers who call in sick are dismissed as being weak or not dedicated to their jobs. A Reddit user named "Cheffie" who claims to have previously worked as "executive chef of a pretty large, fine dining restaurant" in New York posted some advice for young cooks back in 2011:
TO BE A COOK, YOU HAVE TO SHOW UP. EVERYDAY…PERIOD. I’m not kidding here. There are no sick days for cooks. Zero. Sorry. Ok, ok fine…I have seen a good cook or two call in sick. But it’s a very rare thing. How rare? Well in my 9 years I’ve had exactly one half of a sick day (I spent the morning throwing up but still made it in by 6pm for the dinner rush). I know a lot of cooks that have never called in sick at all.
Over on the popular forum ChefTalk, a thread about calling in sick seems to weigh heavily in favor of ill workers staying home — though one user claims to have been fired for doing just that.
A lack of understanding about how food-borne illnesses are transmitted also seems to be at play: Nearly 38 percent of survey respondents said they didn't believe they would be contagious.
Just last month, a Chipotle location in California was linked to more than 100 cases of food-borne illness; seven employees subsequently tested positive for norovirus. Employees working through illness isn't an issue that the world's top restaurants are immune to, either: In 2013, more than 60 diners who ate at Copenhagen's hallowed restaurant Noma — previously rated number one in the world — fell ill with norovirus; the incident was traced back to one employee.
Asked to comment on the survey results, director of support services for Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, Julie Secviar, issued the following statement to Eater: “With the passing of recent state laws, TKRG employees working in NY and CA now have the ability to earn paid sick time which reduces the financial concern in taking time off when ill. We continually focus on the well-being of our employees, and strive to ensure they are able to deliver the best level of performance."