This week, food-labor advocate Saru Jayaraman is releasing her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, which relates heartbreaking stories of just some of the 10 million restaurant workers in the U.S. In a chapter called "Serving While Sick," she tells the disturbing tale of a fast-food worker who had no choice but to come to work with a bad cold since she couldn’t afford to go unpaid. When this worker tried to explain to her manager how perhaps handling food while coughing and sneezing was not such a good idea, she was laughed at. She later wondered how many customers she got sick that day because she couldn’t leave the counter every time she needed to wipe her nose.
As Jayaraman explains, this story is all too typical. Because most restaurant workers do not receive paid sick days, they are coming to work when they should stay home. Remember all the times that, as a full-time salaried worker, you stayed home with a cold, or to take care of a sick child, or just needed a “mental health day”? It’s a perk many of us take for granted, but for workers who handle our food, in jobs where spreading germs is the most risky, calling in sick is not even an option.
That’s in large part thanks to the massive lobbying machine the National Restaurant Association (aka the other NRA). In 2012 alone, the group (designated as a “heavy hitter” by the Center for Responsive Politics, among the 140 biggest donors since 1990) spent more than $2.7 million lobbying at the federal level, and donated more than a million dollars to federal candidates. (State restaurant associations are also very powerful.) The NRA also benefits nicely from the revolving door syndrome: Last year, 31 out of 40 NRA lobbyists previously held government jobs. Among the top issues on NRA’s agenda? Tips and sick leave.