Big Cause of Food Poisoning Outbreaks: Sick Workers

Researchers suggest paid sick leave might make restaurants safer
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 1, 2023 12:25 PM CDT
Big Cause of Food Poisoning Outbreaks: Sick Workers
"In today’s environment, it’s clear that there are staffing shortages and people will come to work sick," Baum says.   (Getty Images/RossHelen)

Providing restaurant workers with paid sick leave could make restaurants safer places to eat, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers say. According to a report released this week, around 40% of food poisoning outbreaks with a known cause were linked to sick or infectious workers. Researchers studied food poisoning outbreaks at 800 establishments reported to 25 state and local health departments between 2017 and 2019, the New York Times reports. They found that the leading cause of outbreaks was norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea. Salmonella was the second most common cause.

"Food workers report numerous reasons for working when ill, such as loss of pay and perceived social pressure," the researchers wrote. Daniel Schneider, a social policy expert at the Harvard Kennedy School, tells the Times workers sometimes come in when they're sick because they don't want to leave the restaurant short-handed, they fear retaliation from management—or they can't afford to miss work. "Food service workers face really impossible trade-offs around issues like working sick because food service jobs are so low-paid in our economy," he says. The CDC researchers say fewer than half of the establishments with outbreaks linked to sick workers had paid sick leave.

"Research suggests that paid sick leave might improve food safety outcomes," the researchers wrote, noting that "expanded paid sick leave in a restaurant chain reduced the incidence of working while ill among front-line food service workers." Mitzi Baum, CEO of the Stop Foodborne Illness nonprofit, tells the Washington Post that widespread staff shortages since the pandemic have increased the pressure on workers to come in when they're ill.

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The CDC also called for better compliance with recommendations in the FDA Food Code. The report noted that while most managers at establishments that had outbreaks said employees were required to notify managers when they were ill, less than a quarter had policies that listed the five symptoms workers should tell management about: "vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, sore throat with fever, and lesion with pus." (More food poisoning stories.)

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