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Posted on May 28, 2015 in Blog

Editorial: Paid Sick Leave for Food Employees

Paid Sick Leave is an issue that can easily be blown out of proportion or even hijacked as a bullet point for other agenda items, when in fact it deserves to be treated, as a standalone issue..

If the purpose of paid sick leave for food employees is to reduce the risk of causing a foodborne illness outbreak (as all food codes will clearly state), then that should be the goal of any plan put in place. We must avoid the trap of turning this into a health care issue or a mandated employee benefit issue. This is about keeping diners safe. Period.

Here is the link for a white paper that the Minnesota Department of Health prepared at the request of the Minnesota Senate. They are endeavoring to state the case for mandated paid leave for ill employees who handle food.

No matter what side of the issue you support, I think we can all agree on this:

  • Food handlers with infectious foodborne illnesses and certain symptoms can make diners sick.
  • The food code requires exclusion of such people (good thing).
  • In many cases no work equals no pay.
  • Sometimes people work when sick and symptomatic so they don’t lose pay.
  • Sometimes operators threaten employees so they will work even if they are symptomatic.

This is not a new scenario. Since the mid 1990’s when the topic of ill employees really started gaining traction, there has been a lot of tension around excluding sick or symptomatic food workers. Since the requirement for Certified Food Managers in Minnesota – and thanks to some very large outbreaks that have impacted national chain operators and their franchisees – most food businesses have come around to implementing some version of an exclusion process for ill workers.

The two sticky points have been replacement staff at a moment’s notice to cover the open shifts for sick workers and the lost wages for the employee. The easy political fix is to generate sympathy for the lost wages and find a way to subsidize the workers for work they didn’t do. Current thought is that the replacement of those wages must either come from the business or from “the state”.

A business can’t afford to pay double wages to an employee. Double wages? Yes, because now they pay the missing person AND they pay a wage to the person who came to fill the shift.

And what about the state? The state = some form of taxed dollars. Taxed dollars either come right out of a business’ revenue stream or it comes from the income of the friends/families/neighbors of the worker who stayed home. We all have enough strain on our own cash flow; I don’t believe it is fair or reasonable to expect us to pay for someone else’s missed shift at the same time.

That leaves a different option. I can hardy call it a new option. It is actually restoring an old option. I think it is time to require workers to bank their own sick pay. That way they are relieved of the stress of lost income and the employer is able to reduce the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak due to a sick worker and not go backwards by paying a second person to do the work to take care of their dining customers.

My professional colleagues in the TouchPoint Resource Pool are working with me to craft a policy recommendation that can be supported by operators, sanitarians, workers and championed by a problem-solving legislator. We can fix this problem with real solutions, allowing Minnesota to yet again step forward as a leader in thought and action.

Lars Johnson, CP-FS


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