Pop-quiz question: What is the easiest way to ensure a food service establishment ends up embroiled in a foodborne illness outbreak?

Answer:  Fail to implement a sick leave policy and allow food handlers to work while sick! 

Not a very surprising answer, right?  Despite the well documented association between foodborne illness outbreaks and ill food handlers, it seems that many restaurant managers are willing to take the risk anyway.  A study released by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United group (ROC) entitled "Serving While Sick" found that 4,323 workers, or 63% of those surveyed admitted to cooking or serving food while sick at some point during the past year.  For a quick recap of some recent foodborne illness outbreaks linked to cross-contamination by ill food workers, click HERE.

Brandon C. Baker of The News-Herald reported on the study’s findings and highlighted a few of the considerations both restaurant mangers and restaurant employees face on the issue of ill food workers, including a complete lack of paid sick days or health insurance for most.

The statistic that troubles the ROC the most: 87.7 percent of respondents said they don’t receive paid sick days. That figure is a primary reason why the ROC has been pushing for federal legislation that would mandate seven paid sick days for workers in this country.

Ohioans have heard about such a proposal before, and they know most small-business owners won’t succumb to a paid sick leave law without a fight.

"I feel like I reward people for showing up to work," said Frank Catanese, who owns the Willowick Giuseppe’s Pizza location. "I’m not a fan of giving sick days just to give sick days. It should be circumstantial, decided between the employer and the employee."

But that’s a tough sell to the ROC, which views the industry with more than 10 million workers as a low-paying, high-risk field. Ninety percent of the workers said they do not have health insurance.

"The main thing that I think I took away from the research was that when restaurant workers are unhealthy, there’s a real potential for consumers to be unhealthy," ROC Policy Coordinator Jose Oliva said. "In the context of this great recession, we’re seeing that employers are pushing workers more and more, and that’s manifested in a lot more workers in restaurants working longer hours and doing it for less pay. As the study demonstrates, they are without some basic standards, as well as health insurance."

For the ill food worker, not showing up for work usually means missing a much-needed paycheck, even at the risk of infecting customers:

"I could not call in sick because no work meant no money, and I couldn’t afford it at that time," June Lindsey, a Detroit fast-food worker, said in a working-while-sick testimony for the study. "Halfway through the day, the sneezing, coughing and runny nose got worse. I asked the manager, ‘I am really sick and need to go because I could make others sick and I am dealing with food.’ She laughed and told me, ‘Try not to cough then.’ "

Lindsey went on to wonder how many customers she got sick that day, along with her co-workers.

"The employer has essentially said, ‘You must go to work or you’re fired,’ " Oliva said. "That’s their livelihood."