No Paid Time Off For Restaurant Workers Makes Us All Sick

On June 2003, 130 maintenance workers walked off the job at the Congress Hotel in Chicago and went on strike. They were protesting their low wages, and wouldn't return to work until their demands were met. So day and night, they patrolled the sidewalk in front of the hotel, asking customers to find somewhere else to stay. On May 31 of last year, they finally put down the signs. It was the longest hotel strike in history. And it failed.

One of the main reasons it failed: the hotel simply wasn't affected. Customers would come and go through the various entrances, right past the two or three protestors casually walking out front. It was business as usual. And this is why most strikes fail: If the protestors don't get the public on their side, business simply carries on.

Which is why it's important to keep in mind that the ongoing fast food strikes -- in addition to the overall battle for restaurant worker rights -- doesn't only affect those doing the striking. It affects us all. Specifically, it affects our health.

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For the past few years, the CDC has been trying to find a reason why 20 million people a year become infected by norovirus. This is the virus that causes the symptoms we generally associate with a bad case of food poisoning: stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, all that stuff. It's spread when someone with the virus discharges it -- through, let's just say, an outburst at either end -- and they fail to adequately wash their hands. If they shake someone's hand, and that person uses the same hand to eat something, well, the fun continues onto the next group of the infected.

Their study tried to find the biggest group of culprits causing the virus' spread. And in first place by a long shot:

Restaurants and catering services are the most common sources for norovirus outbreaks from contaminated food, according to the report. "Infected food workers are frequently the source of these outbreaks, often by touching ready-to-eat foods served in restaurants with their bare hands," CDC experts wrote.

But the study doesn't just stop there. To the CDC's credit, they also went a step further and tried to figure out just why restaurant workers were the biggest culprits. Sure, food workers are inherently placed in a position where they have the ability to spread viruses further and quicker, seeing as their job puts them in contact with food. (As opposed to, say, the ability of a group of construction workers to spread their illness to the public.) But is it an instance of restaurants needing more sinks, better soap, and more stringent washing requirements?

No, restaurant workers need better benefits:

One in five food service workers say they have worked while sick with vomiting and diarrhea due to "fear of job loss"

While washing your hands can help kill the virus, if you already have the virus, the only way to really stop the spread -- especially if you're in an environment with food everywhere -- is to simply stay away. And that doesn't happen in the restaurant industry, because for the most part, if they stay home, they don't get paid. This is, after all, the other issue that food workers are fighting for beyond a raise in wages.

Besides earning a living wage, they want paid sick days.

As it stands now, a lot of workers can't afford to stay home when they're sick. Their wages don't afford them the ability to simply take a day or two off if they have a headache or stomach bug. And because they don't have paid sick days, when they're feeling under the weather, they still roll out of bed, splash some water on their faces, lug themselves into work, and handle your food.

Keep that in mind the next time you hear news about the fast food strikes. This isn't a battle to help out a group of distant people on the other side of the globe. This isn't some altruistic cause. This is about keeping all of us from getting sick.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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