What to do when a restaurant employee is sick

sick cold germs


Our restaurant is making it mandatory to come in when you are sick. Their response is to either find someone to cover your shift or come in, and if it’s slow enough, they can possibly cut you. Recently, most of the staff had the flu, and we all had to work our seven- to 10-hour shifts.

– Server, Salt Lake City


Every restaurant manager has been there: You start your day thinking it will be good—or at least bearable—and then the call-ins start. Especially in the cramped and enclosed spaces of the restaurant kitchen, service station and bar, not to mention relationships outside of work, it is not uncommon for a bug to hit multiple staffers at once.

The policy at your restaurant is fairly typical—either show up to work or find someone to work for you. In most at-will states, employees indeed have few protections for minor illness outside of contracts, collective bargaining agreements or local regulations. Research shows that many restaurant workers work while sick.

 For your restaurant, however, the policy seems problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Health codes typically bar ill workers from working with food if they have symptoms such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea—and for good reason, from a food safety and public health standpoint. While you may be allowed to work from a labor perspective, the health code would be contradictory.
  • While there is nothing wrong with suggesting a co-worker who would be willing to take your shift, it should be up to the employer to schedule employees, not their peers. What if your colleague does not have a matching skill set or is already at a threshold for overtime pay or another benefit that the restaurant is not prepared to offer?
  • As you are experiencing, the policy may result in frustration and high turnover among employees.


Paid sick days have increasingly been in consideration as both a worker equity and public health measure. My advice is for operations to get in front of this with clear and formal policies for call-ins. A number of scheduling technology tools may also help to fill those empty shifts.

More on working while sick here.

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