For Safe Food System, Workers Need Earned Sick Days

Jan 07, 2013

By Liz Ben-Ishai

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration proposed two broad new food safety rules, marking the first major food safety rulemaking since the 1930s. These rules came about because of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was passed more than two years ago. Since the passage of the law, consumer advocates have pressured the government to move forward with the rulemaking process, to little avail. While powerful interests and politics held up the process, the human and economic costs of food-borne illness accumulated. One in six Americans becomes sick from contaminated food each year, which adds up to 48 million cases of food-borne disease annually. 

These rules are a major step forward for consumer safety. However, policymakers should take note that a major gap in labor protections for workers who handle our food continues to imperil the safety of our food system: most farmworkers and restaurant workers, as well as other food chain workers, receive no earned sick days, which means many are forced to come to work when sick. This lack of protections is not only unfair to workers, but also 1) dangerous for consumers, who risk infection and illness when they eat food handled by sick workers, 2) bad for businesses, and 3) harmful to the U.S. economy.

According to media reports, the first rule requires food processers to create a plan to address food safety problems and keep records, which would be available to government inspectors to audit. The second rule, which concerns many aspects of harvesting and production, explicitly addresses workers. According to the New York Times, this second rule may require a farm or plant to “add lavatories to ensure that workers do not urinate in fields and post signs similar to those in restaurants that remind employees to wash their hands.”

But workers on farms, in food processing facilities, and in restaurants need more than access to restrooms and reminders to wash their hands (though these are important). They need time off when they are sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 20 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks can be traced to transmission from food workers. A 2011 study found that 11.9 percent of food service workers (this does not include farmworkers) had worked while suffering vomiting or diarrhea on two or more shifts in the previous year. 

In addition, a survey by the Food Chain Workers Alliance found that 79 percent of workers across the food chain (from farm workers to food service workers) did not have earned sick days or did not know if they had them. Another study also found that less than a quarter of food service workers had earned sick days.  Relatively little data is available with regard to farm workers’ access to earned sick days, since they are typically excluded from many of the studies conducted by the Department of Labor. Nonetheless, groups representing farmworkers overwhelmingly agree that farm workers typically lack most labor protections, including earned sick days.

When food industry workers lack earned sick days, not only are they unable to recover properly from illness, but also they may be at a higher risk for workplace injury. New research shows that workers with access to earned sick days are 28 percent less likely to experience workplace injuries. 

Workplace injuries and food contamination are costly for businesses, too. The cost of food-borne illness to our economy amounts to about $152 billion per year. Food companies incur significant losses when they must recall products, losing consumer confidence. Occupational injuries and illness cost the U.S. economy $250 billion per year. Workers who earn low wages, like most farm workers and food service workers, account for more than $39 billion annually in economic costs incurred from workplace injuries and illnesses. 

As our economy struggles to get back on track, the health risks and economic costs of not having earned sick days are more untenable than ever. Families need to know that their food is safe. Workers need to have the time to recover from illness without the risk of losing wages or their jobs. And businesses can’t afford to bear the costs of injured or ill workers and devastating food recalls. As we celebrate the government’s long-awaited forward movement on the Food Safety Modernization Act rules, we should also demand that all workers – especially those handling our food – have the right to earned sick days.

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