Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The industry has to rethink paid sick leave

My friends accuse me of being a shill for the restaurant industry because I won’t condemn the chains, a requisite for anyone who wants to wear black and discuss the latest Vanity Fair. But that doesn’t mean I support everything thing the trade oes, particularly when it comes to legislation. Consider, for instance, the prickly matter of paid sick leave.

A proposal reportedly gaining favor in Connecticut would require restaurants and other businesses that employ more than 50 people to provide 6.5 paid sick days per year. If the measure proceeds, the state would become the first in the nation to mandate the benefit, though Massachusetts and Illinois may not be far behind. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., already have a requirement on their books. Milwaukee residents approved a ballot initiative last year that called for paid sick leave, but the early February start date has been postponed because of a legal challenge from employers.

The restaurant industry insists it can’t afford to double up on pay for a position whose holder has taken sick—what the ill individual would get, plus what a replacement would collect. I don’t disagree.

But consider the alternative to paid sick leave. A restaurant employee is vomiting and suffering from diarrhea. He or she has a choice of either coming in and getting paid, or staying home and foregoing the money. There’s not much to weigh there, at least not from their standpoint. And that’s even if they work in the kitchen.

An employee in that condition is supposed to stay home, but there’s certainly an incentive to flout the rules. If the problem is viral, the employee is almost certainly still infectious. Indeed, research indicates that someone can still pass along a norovirus, the cause of what most people would characterize as the flu, considerably longer than they’re symptomatic.

Gloves, hand washing, the use of utensils and other precautions can avert risk. But they’re less than fool-proof in a harried restaurant kitchen, where a staff in the weeds might forget or skip what they’d recognize in cooler moments as a must-do.

In that environment, a sick employee poses a danger, to guests, co-workers and the business, if there’s a publicized outbreak of an illness. Moving the person out of the kitchen would be one potential remedy, if another staffer could be displaced or directed to trade places. Now you have a possibly infectious person in the dining room or bar.

A better solution is paid sick leave. The unsolved problem is how to make it affordable.

Somehow, the industry has to find a way of doing it. The obvious one is some sort of pool, where everyone pays in a little so contributors can draw out the shared funds when they’re the ones who need it.

But few operators want to hear that. They’d rather bet they can hold the line and fend off an expense that really could put them under, as a straight employer mandate might.

The situation in Connecticut and elsewhere will hopefully prompt them to reconsider, before their options are narrowed to paying a fortune or facing costly sanctions.

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