Tuesday, October 26, 2010



Sick Leave as National Policy

Unmentioned in the public health report is what Human Resources refers to as “shadow workers”—people who are under the weather but reluctantly drag themselves to work to avoid losing money, yet are too sick or lethargic to perform their jobs adequately. They are there physically, but that’s about all. As a consequence, productivity declines. So does work place safety.

The overwhelming majority of restaurant workers don’t have sick leave. Given that the restaurant industry is notoriously non-union, and relies heavily on young, transient and immigrant labor, this is not surprising. Restaurants also lead the pack in NLRB complaints and violations, so why would they be expected to offer anything as enlightened as sick pay?

But what is surprising—and somewhat alarming—is the report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) revealing that almost two-thirds of restaurant employees admit to having “cooked or served food” while sick, which makes it a genuine public health issue.


That last bit is surprising: my personal estimate, admittedly based on experience in the restaurant industry rather than on any real scientific study, is that everybody who has "cooked or served food" in a restaurant has done so while sick. Sometimes sick as a fucking dog. Me too. No point in denying it because I don't really feel too terribly responsible for it. This is just how the industry does business. This is American capitalism. No fucking way I'm taking the rap for American capitalism.

The above linked essay focuses on paid sick leave in the US, how most workers don't have it even though something like three quarters of workers worldwide live in nations that guarantee it, and how bad the situation is for both workers and the capitalist's bottom line, all of which is obviously true.

But my situation is a bit different: I have a family safety net. If I miss a few shifts because I'm sick, no big deal; my well-off and generous Dad will give me the money to make rent. No, I work sick for different reasons, although I have no doubt that most of my fellow workers aren't as lucky as me. But really, in the restaurant industry, it makes no difference. You come to work sick because that's how management wants it.

If you call in to tell the boss that you're ill and can't make it, you are met with immediate and strong skepticism and pressure. "Oh, you're sick, are you? How much did you have to drink last night?" Or "Are you sure? We really, really, really need you tonight. You're really putting us into a major bind." Or "You were sick last month. This is becoming too much of a pattern."

Once you've made it past the first barrage of gate-keeping behavior, you have to deal with the second: most restaurants insist on some sort of doctor's note before they'll allow you to start working again. Because most restaurants don't offer health insurance to their hourly/tipped employees, this means, in addition to the hassle of getting into a doctor's office quickly enough to avoid losing a week's wages, you have to pay anywhere between eighty and a hundred bucks, more than a day's average pay, just to get back on the schedule. My restaurant, seemingly more progressive than others, offers a totally shitty health insurance plan that doesn't do much more than pay for a couple of office visits, so, at least, the back-to-work cost is minimized. Slightly. Either way, without insurance, or with shitty pauper's insurance, the institutional barriers erected against calling in sick just aren't worth climbing.

At a staff meeting last weekend we learned that the corporate office had erected a third barrier: if you call in sick, you cannot work again for seventy two hours. And you still have to have your doctor's note. So you can't simply miss a day if your nose is running like a faucet. You've got to miss three days. I just don't want to ask my Dad for that kind of money. And like I said above, most of my comrades aren't over-educated bourgeois dilettante loafers like me. They work for a living.

So most of us just come to work sick as shit. I've had the flu; I've had horrible colds. I've had nasty stomach viruses. I've been telling tables about today's special while I start feeling snot start to run out of my nose, making me hurry through my explanation of grilled red fish with lemon butter so I can run to the bathroom to blow my nose. I've seen many of my fellow waiters just say "fuck it" and blow their noses right next to the ice bin or silverware. Without washing their hands. Same with the cooks on the line.

I have absolutely no doubt that I've gotten customers sick. I mean, impossible to say how many, but I'm certain that I'm spreading my germs all over the place despite my frantic efforts to wash my hands and breathe away from people's faces. I'm fucking sick, after all, and it's really fucking difficult to stay home. What the hell am I supposed to do?

But why am I complaining? I'm sacrificing for capitalism, America's holy economic order. What does it matter if I'm spreading swine flu? It expands the economy. For that matter, why is it a problem if I destroy the Gulf coast fishing industry with irresponsible offshore oil drilling? Because, really, it's the same issue. Economists call it an externality, a cost imposed on a third party which is not part of an economic transaction. In the restaurant's case, the transaction is between me and my employer: the customer gets hit with the externality. In BP's case the transaction is between the oil company and consumers of oil, a category which also ironically includes many people hit by the externality we've been calling an oil spill.

Either way, it's stupid shit we do for capitalism.