What Working While Sick Taught Me About The Risk Of Coronavirus For All Of Us

Restaurant workers will show up to work sick because they need the money and the job.

“If you want a vacation, quit your day job.” I lost count of how many times I heard that popular phrase when I worked as a cook, and now that attitude could be helping the coronavirus spread. 

In the four years I spent as a pastry cook, I worked in neighborhood bakeries and ice cream shops, fine dining restaurants and food halls. I juggled two jobs or picked up catering shifts on the side to afford the Bay Area’s high cost of living. 

My fellow cooks smirked at the low wages, long hours, lack of benefits and lack of safety net that came with nearly every food job. Toughness became a point of pride for hourly workers accustomed to 14-hour days, working holidays and working on weekends.

If you didn’t like it, you could leave. You were replaceable. 

So when I started feeling queasy an hour into a 5 a.m. shift at a bakery in a popular food hall, I didn’t ask for help. I went and used the bathroom, washed my hands, and got back to work. A few minutes later, I rushed to the bathroom again. Then again. 

Exhausted after the previous night’s double shift, I’d grabbed a burrito from the taco truck across the street for dinner. The food always smelled so delicious —and now I was paying a price. 

I knew it was a food safety no-no to work while sick, but there was no one to replace me. I wasn’t sure I had my manager’s phone number, or that it was worth it to wake her up. Plus, I needed the money. 

So when the dishwasher handed me a home remedy — sparkling water with lemon and baking soda — I drank it down with crossed fingers. It did the trick. I finished out my shift, then went on to my second shift. By the end of the day, I was too drained to give the incident further thought. 

Seventy-eight percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck; more than half of minimum-wage workers juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. And poverty rates of tipped workers are more than double those of non-tipped workers, at 13% vs. 6%.

Only 31% of restaurants offer their employees health insurance, with many claiming that it’s cost-prohibitive given high turnover and low profit margins (under 5% on average). 

Nor do food industry employees tend to have paid time off or paid sick leave. Frequently living paycheck to paycheck, these workers literally can’t afford to miss a shift, and many worry they’ll be replaced if they do. Some employers threaten to fire ill workers if they don’t show up for work or ask to go home early. No wonder 51% of food workers routinely go to work sick and 38% admit to sometimes clocking in sick, according to a Center for Research and Public Policy survey of food workers

Restaurant workers (and delivery contractors) don’t have the benefits they’d need to seek care. When working while sick is actively and passively encouraged in an industry that prides itself on toughness, restaurant workers will show up to work sick because they need the money and the job. Like me, they may not even tell a manager — whether they’ve come down with the common cold or the coronavirus. Amid reports of four-figure bills for coronavirus screenings, few food workers are even likely to get tested if they show symptoms. 

Risk of transmission of COVID-19 through cooked food is apparently low, but if a sick worker touched a to-go container or bag with viral particles on their hands, you could become sick. As Eater reports, CDC experts recommend discarding packaging and other delivery materials (like menus) and thorough, frequent handwashing. 

Restaurants say they can’t cover the cost of employee benefits alone, but the absence of a comprehensive public option either forces employers to offer benefits or forces the employees ― and the public ― to bear the risk, as we are now.

“I’m not stopping, fever or no fever,” wrote one food delivery worker in The New York Times

To protect public health, governments have started ordering restaurants to operate at half-capacity, close outright, or offer delivery only. My heart goes out to those employees who’ve just lost paid work for an indefinite amount of time as well as those who go to work but face limited tips or are sent home early due to a slow night.

My heart goes out to restaurant owners and operators, already threatened by razor-slim profit margins and the growth of third-party delivery services. FEMA estimates that 40-60% of small businesses fail after a disaster — and I’m pretty sure this counts as one.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the inequalities of food service labor into sharp relief. The public can’t ignore the hidden costs of the low wages and lack of benefits that lead workers to work while sick. People are talking about unequal access to health care and paid sick leave, and the wider coronavirus spreads, the more people grow afraid ― and angry.  

Last week, McDonald’s workers asked the company to protect employees from the virus and to implement a safety net of paid sick leave for the quarantine, paid time off to cover restaurant closings, and paid leave for workers whose children aren’t able to attend school due to mandated closings. 

Popular sayings like “If you want a vacation, quit your day job” set my expectations low ― so low, I never asked my employers for anything, contented myself with what was on offer, and left if I didn’t like it. If the epidemic pushes restaurant workers to advocate for benefits with the support of diners, there may be a silver lining to the current public health crisis. 

Getting delivery or takeout feels like a positive thing to do — something that boosts your mood in trying times and makes life easier when so much is off-limits. Right now, food service employers and countless others are hard at work. They need our support, but they want to feel safe at work.

The coronavirus has made clear how we all need to work together to protect not only public health, but vulnerable populations. This is new thinking for many of us, who focus our time and energy on self, family, and friends, but from this expanded awareness and community-minded thinking, we can feel safer together (well, six feet apart).

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