Earned Sick Days: What Consumers Want

January 18, 2013

By Liz Ben-Ishai

While many people assume that paid sick days are widely available to all, that is far from the truth for too many workers.  This critical workplace protection is important both to workers and consumers.  A new poll demonstrates that restaurants that do not offer their employees the opportunity to earn paid sick days do so at their own peril.  The survey, put out by the National Consumers League (NCL), found that 92 percent of consumers believe that it is very important or important that the servers and cooks in the restaurants they patronize do not cook or serve while sick. Well over half of respondents agreed on the importance of allowing these workers to earn paid sick days. With consumers expressing a clear preference for fair sick leave policies, the message to business owners is also clear: to satisfy customers, employers must provide restaurant workers with just working conditions, including earned sick days.  Policymakers should take note as well.

Despite what this poll tells us about consumer preferences, a 2011 study from the Restaurant Opportunity Center United (ROC-United) found that 87.7 percent of workers nationwide do not have paid sick days. But restaurants that hope to thrive in this economy should take note of NCL’s poll: their customers care about the health of their servers and the policies restaurants have in place to protect both workers and consumers. NCL’s convincing polling numbers should be a wake-up call to the many restaurants that don’t yet offer their employees this crucial labor protection.

Fortunately, some restaurants have received this message and are doing the right thing. “Kitchen Ethical,” an event convened this week by NCL and ROC-United, featured two Washington, D.C.-area ethical restaurant owners. Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets and Eatonville Restaurants, and Chef Tate, owner of Inspire Barbeque, spoke about their commitment to workers’ rights and the impact their policies (including paid sick leave and health insurance coverage) have on the profitability of their restaurants.

Shallal explained that giving all of his workers – whether part-time or full-time, tipped or un-tipped –  access to earned sick leave made “perfect business sense.” According to the restaurateur’s experience – as well as published studies – employees with benefits stay with their employers longer and have more loyalty to those employers. Moreover, few employees actually use the sick leave they have – in the case of Shallal’s restaurants, less than 10 percent of employees use their sick leave. Shallal’s business, which is profitable and expanding, attributes less than 1 percent of its payroll to sick leave, despite offering benefits that far exceed the limited provisions of D.C.’s earned sick days law. Chef Tate agreed with Shallal; policies like earned sick days “make sense and make dollars,” he declared.


Increasingly, restaurant owners and operators are taking note of consumers’ preferences regarding the origins of the food they are consuming, whether it’s a preference for locally sourced foods, organic fare, or free range meat. But, as the NCL poll shows, consumers preferences extend beyond the food on their plates to the kinds of protections afforded to workers at their favorite restaurants. As Shallal remarked, “It’s not okay to just have cage-free eggs. You need cage-free workers, too!” At the Kitchen Ethical event, attendees viewed a brilliant video from ROC-United that effectively makes this point.

In the past week, with news of a burgeoning influenza crisis spreading, the dangers of not having earned sick days appeared in many media outlets. This renewed attention to the disturbing fact that one third of workers in the United States lack earned sick days may be the only positive outcome of a flu season that continues to cause severe illness and even death. But while the media’s attention is focused on sick days this month, the survey released by NCL this week suggests that businesses should pay attention to earned sick days policies year-round. Elected officials should also take note. After all, it’s what workers deserve – and what consumers want.

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