SEATTLE —Nearly a year after a jury awarded $25.2 million to a group of tourists sickened while staying at the Reno Hilton, the hotel is once more the focus of a health department investigation. Reports surfaced yesterday that eighty high school volleyball players, their coaches, and families became ill with a gastrointestinal virus after staying at the hotel over the Easter weekend. Nearly one-third of victims who reported flu-like symptoms sought treatment at the Washoe Medical Center emergency room in Reno, complaining of intense abdominal cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. Health officials have not determined the source of the outbreak, but are reported to be investigating whether ill employees may once more be the case.
A similar outbreak at the Reno Hilton led to a class-action lawsuit based on the allegation that the Reno Hilton did not provide paid sick-leave for workers, and that the outbreak could have been prevented had workers stayed home, instead of working while ill. More than 600 guests and 300 employees were stricken by the gastrointestinal virus in May and June, 1996.
“At some point, if the restaurant industry does not act, it is going to face state laws that require them to include paid sick leave in their employee benefit packages,” said Denis Stearns, a partner in Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm nationally known for its representation of victims of foodborne illness. “It’s not just a labor relations issue. It’s a public health issue.”
Viruses such as the Norwalk virus and hepatitis A are spread through a fecal-oral route, meaning the feces of a contaminated person must come in contact with something another person consumes for the virus to be spread. “Absent stringent handwashing policies, coupled with effective sick-leave for hotel and restaurant workers, there will continue to be these large outbreaks,” Stearns continued. “Do employers really expect their employees to stay home when they’re sick if they aren’t getting paid for the time they miss? Let’s be realistic.”
Stearns is a frequent speaker at restaurant industry conferences. He recently participated in a seminar hosted by the Quality Assurance Group of the National Restaurant Association put on by Handwashing for Life. The seminar focused on the need for thorough and consistent training of employees in effective handwashing techniques.
Marler Clark has extensive experience representing victims of food borne illnesses. Marler, Clark, and Stearns have given presentations before a remarkable array of organizations such as the National Restaurant Association Risk Managers, Institute of Food Technologists, International Inflight Foodservice Association, National Association of Catering Executives, and the International Association for Food Protection.
Jim Mann is the executive director of The Handwashing Leadership Forum, an alliance of advocates seeking to advance the science of frequent handwashing and good gloving.