Many people are already familiar with the conundrum that many restaurant industry employees usually face when they become ill. Like other laborers who receive no benefits, they either work while sick or pay their rent late. The restaurant industry gets additional attention because those sick workers are breathing on the public's food. What many people do not understand is that the industry is set up to keep it this way, and changing this would require a massive overhaul of how the restaurant industry runs and makes money.
Back in September of 2012, Darden's then CEO Clarence Otis made headlines when he admonished a waiter for working while sick. Otis' words were:
As a former worker, you know that we have very strict and aggressive rules to encourage people not to come to work when they're ill, so I'm glad you're a former employee and not a current employee.
"Very strict and aggressive rules" does not touch on the fact that workers are not offered any sick pay. This waiter could not afford to take time off and therefore chose to work. However, to survive as a restaurant worker you are better off working in conditions that make it impossible to take time off when you are sick. And this needs to change.
Restaurant Policies and Procedures
Even in states that pay waitresses minimum wage, the only way to make money is to take more tables. A waitress would rather have six tables in her section than four. She would rather wait on a large party ten (with an automatic gratuity attached) than five separate couples, because each person in a large party will spend likely more on food and drink than any one person eating out with a friend. More selling theoretically means bigger tips.
Food servers complain when restaurants make sections smaller, keep too many servers on the floor, and force workers to share large parties. Servers make less money in these situations, making it harder to save up enough to take sick time off.
The answer to this problem seems to be to keep the dining room chronically understaffed. When everybody is healthy, waitresses have enough work to get the bills paid. The problem here is when somebody needs time off, and nobody can cover the shift. Some managers throw their hands in the air and make it the responsibility of food servers to negotiate time off with each other. This works if you are planning a vacation, or need to attend a wedding on a busy Saturday. Vacations can be set up ahead of time, and other servers will likely want a busy Saturday shift.
We don't plan ahead to be sick next week. Wake up with a fever and sore throat, you may find yourself calling other waitresses who are unable or unwilling to cover your shift. Far from choosing to make customers sick or asking the landlord for an extension, you may have to choose between making customers sick or losing your job for failure to show up.
A week or two of available sick pay per year would help workers who fall ill. Raising wages would make it easier to hire additional staff so all shifts get covered. Unless and until these things happen, remember that the waitress coughing near your food is likely more upset about the fact that she is working than you are.
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