A new type of food fight has broken out across the U.S., and the latest battles are being waged in Florida and New York City.

While local and state lawmakers argue over whether or not to give restaurant employees sick pay, incidents of people becoming ill continue to surface as cash-strapped workers come to work under the weather and pass along their germs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even pointed to the “importance of giving food workers paid sick leave” in a recent statement about preventing future outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

Outbreaks Tied to Food Service Workers

The CDC's fears are not unfounded. At a Chipotle restaurant in Ohio in 2008, 500 people became ill when a sick employee who did not have paid sick leave came to work and handled customers' food.

“Reducing the likelihood of spreading viruses is one among many good reasons to allow workers to earn paid sick days,” said Amy Hanauer, executive director of Ohio Policy Matters, in a news release. “If this restaurant had provided paid sick days, more than 500 people might have been spared a painful illness that resulted in unnecessary costs to the community, students, workers, and other employers.”

In 2006 in Michigan, 364 restaurant patrons became ill in a less than two-week period after a line cook at a large national chain restaurant vomited, possibly transmitting the norovirus. A year earlier, also in Michigan, 100 people became ill during a two-day period after eating catered sub sandwiches from a large national chain restaurant. The outbreak was traced to a food handler who had symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting a few days earlier. Investigators learned the man got the illness from his child, who got it from his day care provider.

“Small restaurants might have difficulty operating when an employee is absent and might not be able to afford paying leave for illness,” the CDC concluded in a report on the Michigan norovirus outbreak. “However, employees who become ill and continue to work can place the public's health at risk.”

Not only did people end up sick, but these illnesses also created a financial burden, the CDC reported. “Illnesses at a publishing company, school, social service group, and among members of the public resulted in closure of a warehouse, employee absences, pay for substitute teachers, loss of wages, and loss of revenue to the restaurant during a week-long closure.”

The Restaurant Industry Responds

Sue Hensley, senior vice president of public affairs and communications for the National Restaurant Association, told Healthline that restaurants operate on a three to four percent pre-tax profit margin, making additional expenses burdensome. She also said many restaurants already offer flexible schedules and paid time off.

"Given the industry’s unique business model, the National Restaurant Association is opposed to prescriptive, government-mandated paid leave requirements due to their negative impact on the industry’s ability to create jobs, particularly as the economy continues its recovery,” Hensley said. “Also, our customer-focused, shift-based schedules are heavily reliant on part-time workers. Given these realities, such a one-size-fits-all mandate presents difficult financial and administrative challenges for employers.”

Many critics of providing restaurant workers paid sick leave point to a plethora of laws and regulations that are already in place from the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and state governments across the U.S. that prohibit food workers from coming to work ill.

However, many restaurant workers say they don't tell the truth about being sick because they have bills to pay and need to make money. They also don't want to let their coworkers down or risk being fired.

Are Customers to Blame?

Jennifer Hutchins, a Davenport, Ia., resident who has worked at many national chain restaurants for two decades, said she has never received sick pay. She said employees are expected to come to work ill, and even managers, who sometimes receive sick pay, are encouraged not to take it.

Hutchins places the blame on customers. “When managers hear complaints, they know the solution is to always have a full staff regardless of employee health issues,” she told Healthline. “No manager will admit this, but I've seen people get their hours cut because of calling in [sick].”

She recalls an incident at one place she worked where an employee had to leave because she thought she was having a miscarriage. Customers became angry over the longer wait times, she said, and although the manager explained the situation, they still became unruly. “This was a literal life or death situation and all they were concerned with was their stupid pop refill,” Hutchins said.

Laws and Legislation in Cities and States

Legislatures in a handful of states, mainly in the southern U.S., have taken preemptive strikes to prevent city officials from mandating that employers provide food service workers with sick pay. As recently as last month, Florida adopted one such a measure.

When he signed the bill, Gov. Rick Scott pointed to Florida's “business friendly environment,” which he says supports job creation. “Having a job is the most important thing to any working mother or father, and I will continue to fight for policies that encourage job growth,” he wrote after signing the legislation into law.

Washington, D.C., requires sick pay for workers, but excludes those employed by restaurants and those making tips. Elissa Silverman unsuccessfully ran for city council there earlier this year on a platform of changing the law. “This lack of coverage has public health implications—this is an issue not only for restaurant workers but also for restaurant patrons,” she said in a news release.

A handful of big cities have already adopted laws mandating sick pay for restaurant workers. As recently as last week, New York City extended the benefit, but not until lawmakers overrode a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Other cities that mandate sick pay for restaurant workers include Seattle; San Francisco; and Portland, Ore. Philadelphia tried to pass a similar measure, but it was vetoed by the mayor earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has tried and failed many times to pass legislation making sick pay a federal requirement. Generally, the bills do not even make it out of committee.

Last week, when New York City passed its sick leave law, Harkin applauded the decision. “Tens of millions of Americans, especially those in low-wage jobs, lack access to paid sick days," he said in a press release. "When illness strikes, these hardworking people face impossible choices between keeping their jobs and their paychecks, or caring for their own health and the health of their families. Many are forced to go to work sick, putting coworkers and customers at risk."

According to Harkin, 40 percent of private sector workers and 70 percent of low-wage workers do not receive sick pay. Further, nearly two-thirds of restaurant workers have reported cooking or serving food while sick.

Illness costs the national economy $226 billion per year, he said, with the majority of the costs—70 percent—resulting from workers who come to work ill, infecting coworkers and the public.

Learn More