Saturday, August 18, 2007

Swallowing some strong medicine

The realization might not have sunk in yet, but the industry learned last week that it’s heading toward universal paid sick-leave, with the mandate likely to come from health officials rather than lawmakers. It’s my prediction that the grease on the skids will be the formation of new government-regulated funding pools, a la unemployment insurance, to pay for it. It’s an expense the industry shouldn’t oppose until it considers the alternatives, which could change the industry’s fortunes far more profoundly.

The catalyst is new research that redefines how long a restaurant employee may be able to pass along norovirus, the leading cause of food-borne illness, to co-workers and guests. The convention in the trade right now is to keep workers out of the dining room or kitchen if they’re vomiting or suffering from diarrhea, a short stretch when they’re virtually walking Petri dishes for the gastroenteritis-causing microbe. In keeping with model practices, the staffers are usually benched for an additional two days to ensure they’re past the infectious stage.

But a study from Emory University viral expert Christine Moe has determined that the workers actually pose a significant contamination risk for five weeks longer. The results were revealed at last week’ Viruses conference, the subject of an earlier posting here.

The day after Moe dropped jaws with her finding, the Food & Drug Administration’s Alan Tart showed the audience what that could mean for the industry. The employees are still a contamination risk because they “shed” the norovirus, or excrete it in their stool. One gram of that feces contains about 10 million norovirus particles. If an employee had that tiny amount of residue on his hands after using the bathroom, and scrubbed them like crazy, science has shown that 10,000 of the organism will still likely make it into the place’s food. With only 10 viruses needed to infect someone, 1,000 patrons could be sickened.

One thousand people spreading the word that they got sick in that establishment. One thousand potential lawsuits, perhaps suing not only for damages to themselves but their families, since they, too, would shed the norovirus and pose a contamination risk. One thousand chances of destroying a business.

The ironclad solution, of course, would be to keep employees out of work for the 20 to 35 additional days that they’d be shedding the pathogen. But even Moe, a person outside the industry, could spot the problem of that approach. “You can’t ask someone to forego work and pay for that stretch,” she commented. “I don’t see a way of getting around having someone with the virus come back into the kitchen.”

But if they could stay home and still get paid? A possible solution, or at least a possible one in the eyes of health officials and politicians hoping to look tough on public-safety matters. Lest you doubt it, restaurant-labor representatives in New York City have already used that safety argument to call for universal paid sick leave. It was also raised in San Francisco, where a paid sick-leave mandate has already been passed through a ballot referendum.

And, remember, we’re in the area of Law by Health Official Decree, which has given us the recent rash of trans-fat bans and menu-labeling mandates. If they can say, “No more trans fat because it’s a health issue,” why can’t they say, “Pay your employees to stay home because of the health risk it averts.”

Curiously, in some give and take with other speakers, Moe raised the possibility of cooperative solutions. She was speaking about the use of nurses to determine if workers who profess to be sick should actually be kept out of work that day. She raised the notion of a third-party service, to which restaurant operators could refer their employees, instead of having to play health professional and make the work-or-no-work decision themselves.

But her notion could be applicable to paid sick leave. If operators contributed on a per-paycheck basis into a pool, with the fund tapped to pay an employee who has to be out of work for a stretch because of a norovirus infection, the financial impact could be greatly lessened. Indeed, even with the added expense of paying into the fund, that approach would be much more practical than grappling with the problem alone. That’s especially true when you consider that 23 million Americans suffer norovirus-induced gastroenteritis every year, and about 9 million of them contract it from a restaurant. Clearly there’s a lot of norovirus in the industry.

But the industry has to find a way of eradicating it without making all of its members sick, including restaurant owners.

1 comment:

  1. How have we all servived to this point in time. 40 days off is a lot of time. Is the pendulum swinging a little too far toward germaphobia.
    Maybe we should just ban eating in restaurants all together. that would be much safer.