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California's Better Food Safety Plan: Paid Sick Days


Watch the California Matters episode on fair restaurant wages here.


Last month, the California Congress righted their own wrong. A year earlier, lawmakers in Sacramento voted unanimously to approve the passage of a statute that made minor changes to the state's food handling processes. These were meant to keep consumers safe from food contamination. However, one of those changes turned out not to be so minor.

The so-called "no bare hands" law forced restaurant workers to don plastic gloves or use utensils when handling ready-to-eat food. In theory this was a good idea, but in practice it meant people like sushi chefs or bartenders would have to wear gloves as well. And that was overkill. Last month, the Senate agreed, voting once again unanimously to alter the language of the initial statute, and Governor Jerry Brown nearly immediately signed it into law.

But don't let these change of plans give off the impression that California state lawmakers aren't taking our health seriously. Instead, at the same time they're working out kinks in the food code, they're also attacking food contamination through a different route. And it's way more effective than just stocking kitchens with plastic gloves.

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See: Also last month, AB 1522 made its way through committee with a 5-2 yes vote, meaning that it is one step closer to becoming a law. (The next step is a hearing during the first week of August.) And how will the bill keep consumers safe from food contamination? By forcing restaurant owners to give their workers sick days.

The bill -- as currently written that is, keeping in mind the specifics are in a state of flux right now -- makes employees eligible for one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work. Employers will then be forced to allow their employers to "cash in" that sick time, for up to three days per calendar year. (Employers can also go over that amount if they'd like, but the law only forces them to honor three days per year.) If it's approved, the law will go in effect next July.

Now, not everyone's a fan of this bill, with opposition coming from the expected side of the aisle:

Republicans opposed the measure, arguing it imposed too high a burden on employers. Assemblyman Donald P. Wagner (R-Irvine) called the bill, AB 1522, an "ill-considered, heavy-handed, one-sided piece of legislation."

There's also opposition from the National Federation of Independent Business, who made the usual points in a recent interview with KQED. But opposition to the bill fails to take into consideration the tremendous impact that restaurant worker health has on consumer health.

As I previously noted, sick food workers are by far the number one cause for food contamination. You don't need to be a heavily-degreed doctor to understand why. Low wages plus no paid sick time equals a choice sick workers have to make: Stay at home and get better? Get other people sick and make money to feed their families?

Factor in desperation and it's easy to see which decision gets made.

All that said, there are certain reasons to be hesitant about the effectiveness of AB 1522. The most glaring problem is the three day limit. While it's more substantial than what's currently guaranteed by the state, most illnesses don't get completely cured in only three days. (Other states in the U.S. have already passed laws that provide workers with five or seven sick days a year; the city of San Francisco, in fact, guarantees five to nine days.) And if the sick worker manages to get lucky by contracting a minor illness that is gone in three days, well, they better keep crossing their fingers to stay away from other illnesses for the rest of the calendar year.

Which is all to say that the bill, if passed, is definitely a step in the right direction. Just not a very large one.

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