People who showed up to work at restaurants while sick were linked to 40 percent of food poisoning outbreaks with a known cause from 2017 to 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report released Tuesday.
Paid sick leave and other policies to support sick workers could improve food security outcomes, according to the reportwhich was based on a review of 800 food poisoning outbreaks, using data provided by 25 state and local health departments.
Of the 500 outbreaks in which investigators have identified at least one cause, 205 involved workers who came in sick, the report said. Other common causes included contaminated raw food, in 88 cases, and cross-contamination of ingredients, in 68 cases.
In 555 of the outbreaks, investigators were able to determine which virus, bacterium, toxin, chemical or parasite was responsible. Most of the outbreaks have been caused by salmonella or norovirus, the report said.
To combat these outbreaks, « comprehensive policies on sick workers will likely be needed, » the report said. He highlighted research that showed that extending paid sick leave reduced the frequency with which food service workers reported to work sick and noted that paid sick leave regulations were associated with lower rates of food-borne illnesses.
Daniel Schneider, a professor of social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the report was « sobering » and stressed that the United States was the only wealthy country without federal paid sick leave.
« Reports like this show the real urgency, not just because it’s in the interest of workers, even if it is, but because it’s in the public interest, » said Professor Schneider.
Of the 725 executives interviewed by state and local health departments, 665 said their business required food workers to tell a supervisor if they were sick, and 620 said sick employees were barred or prevented from working. Fewer than half of executives – 316 – said their business provided paid sick leave to workers.
Professor Schneider is a director of the Turn Project, which collects data on people in the retail and food service industries. He said workers said they showed up sick because there was no one to cover for them, they would feel guilty leaving their colleagues short-staffed, they couldn’t afford to lose their jobs or they feared retaliation from the direction.
“Food service workers are faced with truly impossible trade-offs on issues like working poorly because food service jobs are so low-paying in our economy,” he said.
To discourage workers from showing up sick to work in restaurants, caterers, and food trucks, companies may need to better enforce existing policies, such as those that prohibit workers from getting sick; hatching plans for staffing a restaurant when someone calls in sick; and adopt « a culture of food safety in which absenteeism due to sickness is not penalised ».
While the health departments providing information on the outbreaks represented « geographically diverse areas, » the report cautions that its findings may not be representative of all U.S. outbreaks. He also said it was based on information gathered before the coronavirus pandemic and acknowledged evidence that many retail food establishments had since changed at least some of their policies.
Each year, 48 million people fall ill from a foodborne illness, according to CDC estimates. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.