Saturday, January 27, 2007

You'll pay one way or another

Restaurants’ traditional sick-leave policy can be summed up in four words: No work, no pay. That hard-nosed stance may be scorned by employees and faulted by the public, but the trade insists it’s necessary to avert red ink. How can a restaurant afford to pay an hourly staffer who’s out sick and the person who’s filling in for him or her? What’ll that do to margins that are already thinner than a crepe?

The industry is about to find out, beginning in San Francisco next week. The city is the first place in the country to mandate paid sick leave from restaurants and other employers, but it certainly won’t be the last. If public disdain for the industry’s current sick-leave standard doesn’t force the change, well-founded concerns about the health risks certainly will.

By all accounts, residents of San Francisco didn’t vote in a referendum to mandate paid sick leave in their city because of concerns that an ailing restaurant employee might pass along the infection to them. Rather, all the observers say the requirement was approved by 61 percent of voters out of a sense of fairness. How can you expect restaurant workers to get by if the flu or some other ailment waylays them for a week? It just didn’t seem right, at least if you viewed the situation from the employee’s standpoint.

So, starting Feb. 5, restaurant staffers will accrue one hour of paid sick-leave time for every 30 hours they work. Assuming that a server puts in five hours a day, six days a week, that waiter or waitress would be entitled to one paid sick day every five weeks, or 10 per year. In one of the regulations few qualifications, businesses that employ fewer than 10 people are protected by a cap of 40 hours of paid leave per year. For all others, the maximum benefit is 72 hours.

And it applies across the board, to part-time employees as well as full-timers. Opponents not that even a babysitter or the kid who cuts someone’s lawn would be entitled to the benefit.

That considerable burden to small businesses might serve as a yellow light to other areas. But the bright green signal is the health risk of a non-paid sickness policy. If people have to forego their income if they don’t work, they’re strongly motivated to clock in even if they’re running to the bathroom every few minutes. They’ll just have to hope their fellow kitchen workers will cover for them during those frequent breaks from their food-handling duties.

With the current prevalence of hepatitis A and norovirus, that situation could pose a profound community health hazard. Three employees of an Olive Garden in an Indianapolis suburb reportedly came to work while stricken with the latter ailment, more commonly known as the cruise-ship virus. About 370 customers were said to have taken ill afterward. No wonder local health officials indicated that they were speaking with representatives of the restaurant about its sick-leave policies.

The big question is, how can a restaurant extend paid sick leave to its employees without making its investors more than a little nauseous? This is one were the pressure on the industry may be reasonable, but so are the objections about the cost.

At the very least, it should take action instead of waiting until it’s ordered what to do, as it was in San Francisco. The trade was caught entirely unaware, and I’d bet to this day that most operators are oblivious to what’s about to happen out there.

The trade should push hard now to prevent the Bay City’s set-up from being adopted as a model by other municipalities, counties and possibly even states. The benefit that was mandated there is out of whack with any business sense.

It also needs to develop an alternative standard that addresses the public-health implications of the no work/no pay approach. Short of solution from Hogwarts, any change is going to cost the trade. But it may be better to find a way of assuming a small burden now, lest it be really saddled in the next election or food-borne-illness outbreak.

1 comment:

  1. It is unfortunate that the city had to mandate paid sick leave. It does place a burden on the employers. But the risk of contaminating customers by coming in sick out of necessity could cost a business much more in terms of lost business than providing sick leave might. Paid time off may not be a right, but in an industry like this one it may make business sense.