Food Workers “Patient Zero” in Half of All Food-Related Illness Outbreaks

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Food WorkersFoodborne illness is a recurrent problem in the U.S. It is rare for a month to go by without the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or another company announcing a recall due to listeria, E. coli, salmonella, or another form of contamination. The norovirus alone, as the leader in food-related outbreaks, infects 20 million people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These outbreaks should be preventable, especially since 82% of the time, it is an infected person handling the food who is responsible for the outbreak spreading—and half of the time it is a food worker that serves as “patient zero.” Part of the problem, according to a newly released study by the Center for Research and Public Policy (CRPP), is that most food workers will continue to work despite being sick.

The study, which surveyed 1,203 workers across the entire food chain from production to restaurant service, found that 51% of workers continue to come in when ill. This is not due to carelessness or a cavalier attitude about safety either; 90% of those surveyed expressed a sense of responsibility for the safety and health of their customers. The problem is often that food workers feel that they are unable to take time off to recuperate.

Many of the lowest-paying jobs in the country are related to the food industry. A 2012 study found that, among workers along the food chain, 23% worked for $2.13 per hour subminimum “tipped” wages and 37.6% worked for wages that did not bring them above the poverty line. Even when discarding the additional 25.8% that were reported as “low wage,” the study identified a majority of food workers as simply not being able to afford to take time off. Further complicating matters is that 79% of workers either did not have paid sick leave or did not know their workplace provided that benefit.

Incidentally, the 2012 study found that 53% of food employees continued to work when sick, so the trend has not changed significantly in light of the most recent report. Part of the problem may be a disconnect between employer perceptions and what workers experience. The CRPP study noted that when leaders in the food industry were asked, they reported that only 18.4% of food workers would come in sick.

To date, only California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and various individual cities in other states have passed legislation to mandate paid sick leave. Certain companies also include sick leave as part of their policies. In July of this year, for instance, Chipotle expanded its sick leave to cover all employees. Despite these areas of progress, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United reports that roughly 90% of restaurant workers in the U.S. do not have sick leave.

The CRPP study, “The Mind of the Food Worker”, was commissioned by Alchemy. Alchemy is a consulting firm that works with restaurant and food industry companies to improve food safety, workplace safety, and operational policies.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Ng, A., “Majority of Food Industry Workers Won’t Skip Work When Sick,” NY Daily News, October 19, 2015;
“One Fair Wage: The State of Tipped Workers in America,” ROCUnited web site;, last accessed October 20, 2015.
Shallcross, L., “Survey: Half Of Food Workers Go To Work Sick Because They Have To,” NPR web site, October 19, 2015;
The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers along the Food Chain. Los Angeles, CA: Food Chain Workers Alliance, 2012.
“The Mind of the Food Worker: Behaviors and Perceptions That Impact Safety and Operations,” Alchemy Systems;, last accessed October 20, 2015.