Pox, Pasta and No PTO by Keith R. Higgons

One summer during college, I had three jobs. I worked at a bookstore, overnight at a gas station and weekends expediting at an Italian restaurant (for those unfamiliar, this is typically the person who preps and organizes the food before the server delivers it). It was pretty hellish and I never knew if I was coming or going and I was run down. A lot.

One Friday after a particularly busy night at the restaurant, I went out for a few drinks after work. Which is to say, I drank. A lot.

I woke up the next morning with a tremendous hangover and about 20 minutes late to work at the bookstore. I hopped in the shower and off I went.

As punishment for my tardiness, the managers had determined that I would wear the Curious George costume for the kids happening that was taking place that Saturday afternoon. I was in no mood to don a Curious George outfit. Obviously, I was in no condition or position to decline so I sucked it up. Even now, all these years later, I’m still not sure that the punishment fit the crime.

After the hell that was the afternoon dressed as Curious George, and sweating out the previous nights Jack Daniels, I left the bookstore to go expedite at the restaurant. I felt absolutely miserable but attributed that to still being hung-over and nothing more. As I was changing into a t-shirt at the restaurant, I noticed some little bumps on my stomach. I thought “Great, now I got some damn rash from the Curious George costume.” So, I went about the job of slinging pasta for five hours.

The degree of busy in a restaurant is in direct proportion to how crappy you feel. Obviously, that night was busy and I must have doled out over 300 diners. Sometime towards the tail end of service I began to realize I was getting sick so once service slowed, I told the chef I had to leave. I immediately went home and got into bed.

I woke up the next morning and noticed the bumps had spread and I felt even worse. I went to my mother and when I asked her what the bumps were she sighed and said, “Oh, you must have chicken pox. Finally.” When I asked her how I had escaped all these years without them, I got a taste of a mothers’ sadism, “Well, I tried to give them to you as a child, but you wouldn’t get them.” Rather than press the issue of exactly how she did this, I decided I better go to the doctor.

Being it was a Sunday; I went to one of those seven-day ambulatory care places to confirm it was chicken pox. In less than five minutes I had my diagnosis and was being ushered out the back with a surgical mask.

Suddenly it hit me that me handling all that food the night before could not have been good.

A few years later, I was tending bar and had gotten a cold, accompanied by a beefy cough. At the time I was a smoker, so whatever cough I had I attributed more to Marlboro than illness. As the cold moved through my body, I never seemed to get any better over the course of the week and found myself coughing more and feeling more run down than usual.

After one lunch shift I was particularly delirious from fever and went home to sleep. My girlfriend at the time came over and stated emphatically, “You’re sick. You need to go to the doctor.” I argued that I didn’t have insurance, couldn’t afford it, I had to work, yadda yadda yadda. Eventually, I gave in and went to the same seven-day ambulatory clinic that diagnosed my chicken pox. The doctor looked me over, listened to me cough and stated flatly, “You have walking pneumonia.” When I asked if I also had the boogie woogie flu, he stared right at me sternly said “Young man, this is nothing to joke about. You’re sick. People die from this.”

Immediately, I thought of two things. One, there was no way I could work for a few days so I immediately had anxiety about covering my shifts, losing money and potentially my job. And two, how many drinks I had served with this virus. While I was moderately concerned about the later, it was the former that dominated my thoughts.

If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. It’s the ultimate catch-22 and sadly it is one that food and beverage workers face at least once in their career.


Even though these incidents took place almost 20 years ago, the industry hasn’t changed. At all. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, “less than one quarter of workers employed in the ‘accommodation and food services’ industry receives paid sick days.” (2,6)

A 2010 study of Chicago-area restaurants found that 96.2 percent of workers reported having no paid sick days, and 75.9 percent reported having worked while sick. (1)

Even more alarming are the statistics that surround food borne outbreaks. A 2012 study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases investigated food borne outbreaks of norovirus disease and concluded: “Infected food handlers were the source of 53 percent of outbreaks and may have contributed to 82 percent of outbreaks.” It also found that noroviruses are “the leading cause of food borne illness in the United States,” and “food borne norovirus illnesses in the United States … result annually in 15,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths.” (1)

The sickest, if you will pardon the horrible pun, part of it all is that it’s not just workers who want sick days, it’s people, consumers, constituents who also want paid sick leave for employees. In fact, one recent Seattle poll found that 69 percent of City voters supported a measure to require most business in the city to give workers paid sick time, or PTO (paid time off). Under this Seattle plan, business between 4-49 workers would have to offer one hour of sick time for every 50 hours worked, eligible after six months of employment. (3)

These types of initiatives have gained so much traction on a state and local level that, not surprisingly, there is a movement to preemptively block any sort of mandated PTO. (3) And who are the people and/or organizations against such a plan? Your state and local politicians and, what will come as no shock, the National Restaurant Association.

The NRA have been principle backers of this preemptive movement, so much so that as recently as 2011 they pumped at least $100,000 into opposing a local sick-leave proposal in Denver. The voters eventually defeated the proposal but one has to wonder how far that 100k went to influence them. (4)

In June of 2013, taking the side of companies like Walt Disney World and Darden Restaurants, “Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that would block local government from enacting mandatory paid-sick-time measures.”(2,5) According to records with the Sunlight Foundation’s OpenStates.org, Florida is not alone. “Preemption laws backed by the restaurant industry have recently been passed in at least six other states — Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas and Wisconsin — where the bills were all signed by Republican governors. Other preemption bills have been proposed in states like Michigan, Indiana and Alabama.” (2,5)

These preemptive laws are the politicians way of saying, in no uncertain terms, that even though people (consumers and their constituents) want paid sick leave for workers they are not going to let that be a mandate from the state or local government (there is no such national mandate). These preemptive reflexes are designed to specifically leave sick time and paid time off decisions in the hands of private enterprise. Or, politicians are once again ignoring the will of the people for the benefit of the people and genuflecting for corporate interests. (Sigh)

The view from my desk tells me this is entirely about control. It’s about corporate interests wanting to control politicians AND their own employees. Nothin’ new there, right?

The fact is that instituting a Paid Time Off policy is somewhat of a non-issue. Even with 10 million workers, and growing, waiting tables is still a transient and stopgap industry. So if, for example, you have a PTO policy where you gain one hour of PTO for every fifty hours worked after six months…well, given the nature of the business, the likelihood of that applying to 100% of your employees, 100% of the time is slim. What’s the fuss?

The number of food service workers carrying a virus are simply staggering. Having hygiene policies and certifications are great but are all but neutered the minute a virus enters the building. And what if that virus were something worse then a norovirus? Perhaps something more inadvertently sinister?

I’m just not sure I can see any benefit to preemptively prohibiting paid sick leave for servers. The politicians, lobbyists and corporations against it are, in truth, the least likely to be impacted by it. It’s you and I who will be. Allowing employees to earn Paid Time Off really seems to be in the best interest of the employee, the public and the companies.

Everyone wins when we, including politicians, lobbyists and corporations, act in a manner befitting a civilized country.

Someday, I hope we can get to that point.


1. http://goo.gl/VWFgh0
2. http://goo.gl/lX8kBm
3. http://goo.gl/2a5gCC
4. http://goo.gl/iYAeen
5. http://goo.gl/j3P2TV
6. http://goo.gl/cLTpdl