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Handling sick employees

Question:

The flu is hitting hard this year. What's your advice for employers with sick employees? Is it better to send them home so they don't get everyone else sick, or do you let them work sick? What if you don't have enough staff already?

– Karen, Pastry Cook, Four Seasons, Washington, DC

Answer:

Kitchens are hot, cramped places, and when a bug like the flu goes around, it doesn’t take long for it to spread among your team. As a manager, it’s frustrating to expect a full cohort of workers for a busy day and find that some have either called in sick or are zombie-like, trying to work through their illness. And we’ve all done it—we know we’ve come down with something but try to get through the day knowing our contribution is needed.

From a food safety and public health perspective the advice is clear—sick workers, especially if they are experiencing fever, vomiting, diarrhea or a throat infection—should (and depending on the illness, must) stay home for the safety of your guests and their coworkers. Industry reality, though, is that many of your workers and their families depend on those wages and you depend on your staff, challenging to replace at the last minute.

The solution proposed by advocacy groups and some legislators (most notably in San Francisco with similar legislation brewing in Philadelphia and Connecticut) is mandatory paid sick days for restaurant workers. As you can imagine, this is an unpopular suggestion among many owners and restaurant associations. Saru Jayaraman, founding co-director of Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, an advocacy group for restaurant workers, says, "Letting food service workers work while sick is bad both for those workers and their co-workers (who will invariably get infected, costing you more time and money) and of course for your consumers, for whom it is a public health risk. In the long run, our research shows that providing workers with paid sick days makes them more loyal, reducing your employee turnover. We have plenty of…employers in our network who provide paid sick days and who can provide good examples and information to other[s]…about how to cover these workers' shifts."

Feel better!

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