Food nourishes us, can satisfy any whimsical pallet, and, I think we can all agree is generally a good thing. Unless, of course, it makes you sick.
Unfortunately, I know all too well the dangers of contaminated food. For nearly 20 years I’ve represented thousands of foodborne illness victims against some of the largest food companies in the world.
My efforts have helped win over $600,000,000 for those made ill, and just as importantly, have improved policies and practices that help to protect people from food contaminated with things like E. coli and Salmonella.
But during all of this time, one thing hasn’t changed: the vast majority of restaurant, grocery and food service workers – including cooks, deli workers, restaurant servers, and workers in the produce section at your local grocery store – have no access to paid sick days.
So it is with great interest I have been following the evolution of the paid sick days proposal, introduced this week to the Seattle City Council.
Even with the best policies and practices, food cannot be guaranteed safe if the people handling it are coming to work sick. Most shoppers or restaurant-goers believe the workers at their neighborhood restaurant or grocery store have paid sick days. Or at least they would like to think so. Unfortunately, they are often wrong.
Many food workers are on the low end of the wage scale - and if they miss a shift due to illness they typically lose a day’s wage and may even suffer discipline. This promotes a culture of working sick – a significant risk to public health.
The need for paid sick days is glaringly obvious. When you are sick – especially if contagious – you should be able to stay home and get well without fear of being punished with loss of pay or discipline. Without paid sick days, there are bound to be public health disasters – in fact, it happens more often than you think.
Take the outbreak of Norovirus at the Seattle Yacht Club this past March. Likely caused by an ill food worker, it sickened 150 people. Many thousands of cases like these happen every year across the United States, causing discomfort, missed work, and even death.
Unfortunately, corporations have fought the creation of food and safety laws and regulations for years. But wouldn’t it be far more prudent for businesses to support paid sick days, and remove the potential public health risk from their establishments? What are they waiting for, a multi-million dollar lawsuit? Maybe. After all, that approach isn’t new.
Do they really want to be responsible for cases like the Shigella outbreak that sickened over 100 people at a Chicago area Subway in 2010? Or perhaps they would prefer exposing 10,000 people to Hepatitis A, as an Illinois McDonald’s did in 2009. Is it really more cost effective to endure the incredibly bad press (let alone the lawsuits) that comes with putting kids in the hospital than to offer a little paid sick leave?
Paid sick days improve food safety. Period. Restaurants, grocery stores, and other places that prepare, serve and sell food need to get proactive about protecting customers from contaminated food.
Businesses have had decades to provide workers paid sick days – yet 40% of workers in Seattle still do not have a single paid sick day. Paid sick days help prevent the spread of disease, protect our communities and make our food safer.
I call on the City of Seattle to be a leader in public health and food safety, and do what is right for the millions of people who shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and consume food made by workers in Seattle.