Restaurant workers show up sick
February 17th, 2011
12:32 PM ET

Restaurant workers show up sick

One out of eight restaurant workers has come to work at least twice in the past year while suffering from diarrhea or vomiting, according to a new survey of workers in nine states.

That’s 12% of all workers, an increase over the 5% of workers found in previous studies, according to study author Dr. Steven Sumner, the study’s lead author and a resident in internal medicine at Duke University Hospital. The study is published in The Journal of Food Protection.

One reason workers work while vomiting or experiencing diarrhea is many restaurants don’t have paid sick leave, so if a worker stays home, he or she doesn’t get paid.

The National Restaurant Association has fought required paid sick leave. In a statement to CNN, the association said, “There is no greater priority for the restaurant industry than food safety.”

It didn’t matter much whether the restaurant was fast food or sit-down, whether the workers spoke English, whether a chain or independent, or whether the food was American or ethnic.

Busier restaurants – those that served more than 300 meals on a busy day - were more likely to have workers that worked sick.

"It may be if you're working in a busy place your manager is less likely to send you home, or you may feel bad to leave your coworker stranded on a busy shift," Sumner said.

Sick workers can infect restaurant patrons by touching food or utensils without first washing their hands.

Foodborne illness kills 5,000 people annually, according to the study authors, and sickens some 76 million.

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. LEB

    Of course they show up sick. People who work in restaurants don't often get paid sick days (and if they do, it's not very many), so they have no choice but to come to work sick. Same for the majority of people in "white collar" jobs these days, too.

    February 17, 2011 at 12:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Amy

      Exactly. Restaurant workers already get paid so little it's laughable. Most can barely survive on what they earn. A sick day or two could mean the difference between eating and not eating or having electricity or not having electricity.

      February 18, 2011 at 02:07 | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy James

      Another reason is that when a work at one of these places does call out sick, the employer asks for a doctor's note or be written up/fired. That means not only not getting paid for that day, but also shelling out the money for a doctor's visit. Couple that with the notion that many of these workers will not have health insurance, and it turns into a nasty situation.

      February 18, 2011 at 02:16 | Report abuse |
  2. ABB

    Forget sick days...at my husband's restaurant, he could be fired if he doesn't show up, even if he calls to let them know that he is sick. He is required to find someone to cover his shift and if he cannot, he better show up. Because he has worked at the same place for many years he has close relationships with his managers who will often help him out, but not everyone is that "lucky."

    February 17, 2011 at 13:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Renee

    Why don't you do a survey on how many nurses work sick. The hospital I worked in made you work an extra weekend if, god forbid, you called off on a Saturday or Sunday. And we get sick days!!! (we're just not allowed to use them)

    February 17, 2011 at 13:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CNAide

      I've been a CNA at three different nursing homes. Every one will tell its employees not to come in sick because Lord knows what that could do to the residents who are already ailing, have a limited immunological system, etc, but if you do happen to call in honestly sick, whether it be a vicious stomach bug or a cold, you get a write up. If you come in sick anyway, the only thing that can get you sent home is vomiting more than four times an hour (approximately). We work under ridiculous standards.

      February 17, 2011 at 23:39 | Report abuse |
    • JamesK


      I know how you feel about sick days and nursing, but this story is on restaurant workers and not nurses. I hate it when people hijack comment boards for views not expressed in the story.

      February 18, 2011 at 01:42 | Report abuse |
  4. Will

    I worked in the industry for 10 years. With how many immature and alcoholic/drug addict people in the industry who call in "sick" when they are just either hungover/drunk/or wanna go get drunk or high, as a manager you have little choice than to create a work environment where if you don't show up for whatever reason, you are fired. It's unfortunate, and required me to show up for several shifts with anything from a cold to an intenstinal infection, but that's the reality of the job. Too many bad apples have spoiled it for the majority, which are hard working, honest people.

    February 17, 2011 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Slater

      yeah for real...most people in the fast food resteraunt industry are high school and college kids, who call in sick cuz the night before they partied too hard and now they suffer froma hangover....im glad i got my job...i get 7 days sick leave and 5 weeks vacation pay a year, so i know if im ever sick, i got the luxory to do so.

      February 17, 2011 at 14:09 | Report abuse |
  5. m

    Well of course they come to work sick. If they stay home they don't get paid. And many don't have health insurance.

    February 17, 2011 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jane

    When my friend tried to call in sick to a retaurant, the told him he had to show up. When he did not he was officially written up. Stupid.

    February 17, 2011 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. hunt

    get out of the bussiness its not really life career its more like parttime job i been there and done it i use this job for extra not reg money ..

    February 17, 2011 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mitsy

      That's basically the truth. Not many stay in restaurant jobs for life. They are great for part-time work or if you're a student, but it's not something I'd want to do for a full-time job.

      February 17, 2011 at 14:47 | Report abuse |
    • bottom line

      That's an arrogant thing to say to someone. You quit your job and try and find another one without be coming homeless.

      February 18, 2011 at 06:47 | Report abuse |
  8. AMA

    It doesn't matter what your job is. If you value it (or need it anyway), you will find some instance in which you should stay home but don't. Whether its from lack of sick days, threats of firing, inability to get someone else to cover for you or an important project, that's just how it is.

    As much as I don't want to get food from an ill waiter/cook, I am also fully aware that anywhere in public is an opportunity to run into my fellow infected humans.

    Best thing to do is just wash your hands often, do what you can to develop a good immune system (inc. flu shots), and just plan on the fact that you will occasionally catch it from someone else....and may still have to go to work anyway.

    February 17, 2011 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mitsy

      That's good advice for the most part because a good number of people (at any job) can call in just because they want a day off-not because they're really sick. However, if you really are sick, no amount of hand washing is going to do it. Sometimes you really are sick and just need to stay home. Too many employers seem to think if someone does come to work, then they are well enough to work & that is not reality.

      February 17, 2011 at 14:50 | Report abuse |
    • Meeks

      I am a bartender and asthmatic and working sick is a nightmare. The last time I was forced to work sick I ended up in the hospital for a week with a severe lung infection. If I had rested properly till I was better then it never would've happened. So I was out of work for over a week and with no health insurance, it's cost me over $5,000 in bills that the restaurant I work at surely isn't going to pay. There needs to be a law protecting restaurant works and their customers from this kind of thing. Unfortunately it's gonna take for someone to catch a serious illness from a sick restaurant worker in order for this to be fixed

      March 11, 2014 at 15:30 | Report abuse |
  9. Aubrie

    puke in the soup. they'll send you home...... 🙂

    February 17, 2011 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. No Choice Really

    I was a server / cook / bartender while in college. There were days I was sick and stayed home as well as days where I was sick and went in. It all depended on how much I had already made that week and if I needed the cash immediately. Managers would only send you home if a guest complained, so all you ahd to do was take some medicine and fight through it.

    I now work for the same restaurant I worked at in college. The difference is, I work at their corporate headquarters and I am now salary. If I am sick, I still get paid. Up to 10 sick days a year (with medical proof) and vacation time otherwise. I stay home 90% of the time when sick now. I can work from home and only certain things require me to be present at the office. So as long as there isn't a really important meeting I am at home.

    It all comes down to what the company allows you to do while still getting paid. There is always a huge difference for salary employees vs. hourly employees.

    February 17, 2011 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Tom

    What people don't realize is that if a restaurant worker (not fast food) calls in sick, many times there isn't someone to cover their job. In the business world they just push the paperwork until tomorrow or work from home. Hard to cook a steak for a customer from home!!! So if a restaurant worker calls in sick and there is now one to cover the shift then servers have to pick up more tables, slowing down service, cooks have to work more stations, slowing down service and the restaurant suffers. Restaurants are the most critisized industry. If someone has a bad experience, because of slow service or wrongly cooked food, in a restaurant they get on Yelp, Opentable, Chowhound, TripAdvisor and grieve their complaints. A couple of those and your out of business. It is imparitive that all show up to make the restaurant wheels turn well. Maybe people should take a look back and read Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' again, alot of truths are told within the pages. The restaurant business is grueling work. One bad review and you could be done!!!!

    February 17, 2011 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • alicia

      this happens in fast food restaurants to i work in a place that is so short staffed that we have pregnant people working up to the day they give birth and then returning from maternaty leave early to cover shifts. I have personally work 50 or more hour weeks because we are so short staffed

      January 6, 2012 at 12:53 | Report abuse |
  12. elocin

    This is too true...my husband is starting a business, but works part time at a restaurant...he got the flu a few weeks back, and I told him he was not going to work, because he'd just spread it to other workers, and patrons on the food (he works in the kitchen). His manager didn't want to give him the time off (unpaid mind you) until I told her I would stand outside the restaurant during lunch hours and let everyone know coming in they allow people with the flu prepare your food. He was sick for 2 weeks, and missed work without pay-but his managers all told him that they know he was sick, unlike the other folks who call in from hangovers or just don't feel like working–that do work when they are sick.

    February 17, 2011 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Kristen

    I worked as a server for 7 years. We were not allowed to call in sick. If you called in, you got a write-up and lost shifts for the next week. I knew I shouldn't be serving people's food and I knew it was unsafe and unhealthy to do so, but your employers in the food service industry care more about their bottom line than the employees or customers safety.

    February 17, 2011 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Surviving So Far

    My daughter was fired from a McDonald's when she called in with flu symptoms during the height of the H1N1 epidemic. Standing "understood" (as in, they weren't about to write the sucker down, just made sure it was understood) rule there was, you came in sick or you risked your job. Oh, they didn't fire her right away, they simply refused to schedule her until she finally had to quit. I've stopped going to McDonald's, sounds like no restaurant is safe, tho.

    February 17, 2011 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • christine

      If she quit, she wasn't fired!

      February 18, 2011 at 07:34 | Report abuse |
  15. Matt

    I used to work in the industry. Every place I worked required a doctor's note if you called in sick to be able to return to work. Even if it was just a stomach bug and you were puking and crapping every where. The Catch-22 is that the companies don't provide (reasonable, affordable) health insurance, so really, it's ridiculous for a person without insurance to go to the doctor's office for something that doesn't really require a doctor's visit and pay a ton of money for the visit.

    A co-worker of mine who came to work with diarrhea and then told the manager that he was really sick and couldn't do his job because he had to run to the restroom every 2 minutes. The manager refused to let him leave. He pleaded with him, saying it's common sense to let someone who's that sick to go home, but he wouldn't listen. The worker finally just left and was fired. The thing that was ridiculous is that it was a slow night and the rest of the wait staff could have and gladly would have picked up his tables, but these restaurant managers are generally the biggest jerks in the world and get off on firing people. No big deal to them, there's always more people willing to work in the industry.

    It would benefit restaurants if the manager's used discretion. I know people fake, but come on, terrible diarrhea? Let the dude go home.

    February 17, 2011 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Kyle

    Restaurant employees don't normally get paid days off. The group that's more likely to get paid sick days are full-time servers, and it is damn near impossible to work a 40 hour week in a restaurant (a lot of the time management won't allow it). Then, even if the server does not care about the money - would rather stay home and get well - your management will not allow you to stay home unless you get the shift covered which can be the most difficult process in the world and usually ends up unsuccessful!

    February 17, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Barbara

    This is certainly not the restaurant business only. I actually work for an insurance company tha doesn't have sick days built in. They are considered occurences and you can only have 5. We have had Mersa, Shingles, Pneumonia, Bronchitis, Lung infections, the flu, and good old stomach viruses and these folks come to work with them. No one can afford to miss work and no one will tell you to stay home.. Its up to you, and you know you are going to work. You can't avoid the sickness, your co-workers touch everything you do from door handles to the zerox machine. And lets not forget the bathrooms. Should the food workers stay out, yes they should as they come in contact with the public more easily. Who then innocently come into contact with you. Everyone should have at least 5 paid sick days, no matter what profession. They talk about production going down, but all it takes is one worker sick and the entire business gets sick. Sure those that abuse the system should be handled differently but give the workers peace of mind and the right to rest when sick and nothave to worry about their jobs, it is just cheap not to.

    February 17, 2011 at 18:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Corvus1

    "The National Restaurant Association has fought required paid sick leave. In a statement to CNN, the association said, “There is no greater priority for the restaurant industry than food safety.”

    Then why are they fighting required paid sick leave?? Oh, yeah, because employees are cattle and CEOs are all about The Bottom Line.

    This is what unions are for, folks.

    February 17, 2011 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Corvus1

      And this is a far cry from the cafe I worked at as a teenager. If we came to work sick, we could be fired for risking contaminating the food and getting others sick! We didn't get paid, but they didn't put limits on sick days, either.

      February 17, 2011 at 20:49 | Report abuse |
    • Bob Ramos

      You have to remember that the Association is owned by restraurant owners. The workers do not have a say. This insane policy about sick days and very low pay leading to high turnovers are the major reasons why so many restuarants go broke – chain and independent.

      February 18, 2011 at 06:34 | Report abuse |
  19. danielle

    im a daycare teacher and i dont get sick days at all. unless im throwin up im workin even if i have a fever.but i dont get paid for those sick days either. in childcare everything just keeps goin around bc parents send their kids no matter what

    February 17, 2011 at 20:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. jay

    That's sick...

    February 17, 2011 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Brooke

    manager told me when my daughter was vomiting and having diarrhea, that she insisted on speaking directly to my daughter who was in the bathroom. She insisted she bring a doctor's or clinic's or hospital's declaration that she was INDEED sick. She insisted my daughter find her own replacement for that night's shift. She insisted this despite employees not having access to eachother's phone numbers. She said she would not be allowed to return to the restaurant with out the doctor's note.
    How bizarre is this in every day life out there? The restaurant my daughter works for says, "Food with Integrity" but after this manager's hysterical response to my calling my daughter in sick ( first and only time in past year ) , I think restaurants have lost track of their employees' integrity, or at least, the value of hygeine and safety and humanity. PAY the workers sick days. One a month is NOT too much to ask.

    February 17, 2011 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Amy

      I hope they offer her medical insurance, because otherwise I'd tell them where to shove their requirement. The average restaurant worker can't AFFORD to go to a doctor!

      February 18, 2011 at 02:09 | Report abuse |
  22. Laurel

    It's not just restaurants. I was at the market today and saw an employee in the produce department with a bad cough who didn't cover his mouth. And it's flu season.

    February 17, 2011 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Sonya

    I think whenever you buy food that was prepared by someone else whether it be a restaurant or a grocery store, you are taking a risk. I'm certain that I have gotten sick many from eating in restaurants and I'm not saying it was bad food. I've gotten colds and flu from an infected person who either handled my food or sneezed on it, etc. It's really kind of disgusting when you think about it. I think fast food restaurants are the worst offenders because the staff consists mostly kids who don't have good hygiene. The best way to stay safe is to prepare your own food at home.

    February 18, 2011 at 00:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Andy

    I don't care who you are or what your job is, if you are sick STAY HOME!!!!

    – A

    February 18, 2011 at 00:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Amy

      Sure, they can stay home and just not pay that pesky electric bill. Who needs electricity, anyway?

      February 18, 2011 at 02:07 | Report abuse |
    • bottom line

      Wake up

      February 18, 2011 at 06:50 | Report abuse |
  25. dxp2718

    Someone should do an experiment of having a restaurant or restaurant chain with a policy that workers are not ALLOWED to work sick with anything other than a mild cold. Same rules as daycare: no coming in within 24 hours of fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. Then have the restaurant ADVERTISE this policy to its customers so they know they are less likely to get sick from eating there than other places. I predict an increase in revenue due to customer loyalty, and the short-term loss of employees when sick offset by the prevention of spreading the illness to all the other employees!

    February 18, 2011 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. kate

    Not even just having paid sick days, but being able to call in sick AT ALL would be a huge improvement. I go to school full-time and work part-time in the service industry. I'm not always serving food, but almost always am around it or near it. Just yesterday I was in unbearable pain- every muscle in my body aching (cramps), but I went to work all the same.

    Several months ago I was very ill- couldn't even get out of bed to walk downstairs. I called my work, and barely conscious, told them I couldn't go in (while they proceeded to tell me the 'official' policy*). Then I also got a stern talking-to the next day I went in.
    *They said I had to call up my co-workers last-minute and get someone to take my shift. Mind you, this is a business where they always schedule more people for work than they ever need.

    It should be a law though, that any company that serves food, has a system set up so that workers can call in sick and not get fired.
    And again, this isn't even calling in sick and getting paid time off... just merely allowing workers to call in sick. Just because a few people abused the system, doesn't mean it wasn't ever being used properly.

    March 15, 2011 at 01:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. me

    I'm at my fast food job and I've been sick for the last 3 days

    June 16, 2011 at 09:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. J.R. Locke

    Don't kid yourself, it's not about not getting payed for the time, it's that 70% chance that you get fired for not showing up, and the lack of sympathy is worse for managers than it is for hourly employees. A manager doesn't have to call in sick too many times before he's encouraged to take the rest of his life off. So not only do restaurant employees work sick, they do it under brutal physical conditions and are subject to the abuses of a very demanding industry and public.

    May 22, 2012 at 17:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Mon

    I used to work at a restaurant. If we called out sick and didn't have a doctor's note upon our return, we'd get fired. Except we didn't have health care and couldn't afford an out of pocket doctor visit just to prove you had a cold/flu. One time I worked through two weeks with the flu. Because I couldn't rest I developed bronchitis on top of it. There really should be a public health policy that food service workers shouldn't be allowed to work when they have contagious illnesses.

    May 3, 2013 at 04:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Bobby Banks

    Saved as a favorite, I really like your website.


    June 22, 2014 at 00:01 | Report abuse | Reply

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