When a server, line cook or other restaurant employees comes to work with a contagious illness such as the flu, they can easily pass it onto coworkers and customers. Unfortunately, supervisors and employees aren’t always on the same page about this issue.

When Alchemy and the Center for Research & Public Policy commissioned a survey of food workers, supervisors, and leaders in the U.S. and Canada in 2015, the study found that leaders believed only 18.4 percent of workers would come to work when they’re sick. However, over half (50.8 percent) of workers said they always or frequently come to work while sick.

Their top reasons for working while sick? Not wanting to let down their coworkers (46.8 percent) or not being able to afford losing a paycheck (45.2 percent), since many restaurant workers don’t get paid when they miss a shift due to illness.

Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Photo Credit: Tim Musho
Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Photo Credit: Tim Musho

A growing number of states now require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees, but there’s no federal law on this issue, so operators handle it differently.

Some, like Maxwell Mooney, founder and co-owner of Narrative Coffee in Everett, Washington, provide paid sick leave even though it’s not required by law. The coffee shop opened last summer, and Washington state’s mandatory paid sick leave policy went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. Despite this, Mooney felt it was important to provide paid sick leave to his employees from the start. “As a small business we really don’t have the means to provide a ton of additional benefits,” he says. “We felt like that was a really important thing to offer, regardless of whether it was a state law or not.”

Under Washington state’s new law, most employers must provide paid sick leave, with employees accruing paid leave at a rate of one hour per every 40 hours worked. In addition, up to 40 hours of accrued sick leave must carry over to the following year. Narrative Coffee employees accrue paid sick leave at that same rate.

Narrative Coffee
Narrative Coffee

Other small business owners argue that state-mandated paid sick leave cuts into already tight margins. “The margins are definitely tight in this business,” Mooney admits. “It’s not like we’re raking in the money all the time but taking care of your people now is going to reap positive benefits for your business later.”

Paid sick leave hasn’t created a significant cost for Mooney’s business, and he or another team member is usually able to fill in when someone is out sick. “Morale is much higher so folks are willing to help pick up the slack,” he says. “Everyone’s a team player and they want to see the team succeed.”

Mooney feels strongly about the importance of paid sick leave in businesses like his. “If your staff is being taken care of then they can take care of your guests better,” he says. “The overall feeling of your staff means better business. I think there’s good amount of return on investment in offering sick leave, but it’s not as easy to quantify on paper.”

Honey Butter Fried Chicken
Honey Butter Fried Chicken

Similarly, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, a counter-service restaurant in Chicago, has also offered paid sick leave since opening in September 2013. “We really believe that it is crucial that our people can take care of themselves,” says executive chef and managing partner Christine Cikowski. “We don’t want sick people making food. [The policy is] respectful to our customers.”

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Paid sick leave also discourages employees from coming to work and sharing their germs with coworkers, says executive chef and managing partner Josh Kulp. “We work in close quarters so if someone is sick at work it really can cascade,” he adds.

To keep operations running smoothly when someone is out of commission, “we try to cross-train as much as possible so people can jump in various positions,” Kulp says. “Front-of-house is trained to do back-of-house in the kitchen and vice versa.”

If they need to call an extra person to come in on their day off, they find that most people want to pick up an extra shift. “Once in a while that might include having to pay overtime, so we factor that into our budgeting and planning,” Kulp adds.

Cikowski and Kulp believe so strongly in providing paid sick leave and otherwise professionalizing their industry that they sat on the Chicago mayor’s task force to make recommendations on a city ordinance around paid sick leave. The ordinance went into effect on July 1, 2017, and applies to employees who work more than 80 hours within a 120-day period.  “The data supports that by taking care of your employees it keeps them here longer which translates to better sales, better customer service and lower turnover,” Cikowski says.

Chef Wayne Elias of Crumble Catering
Chef Wayne Elias of Crumble Catering

Meanwhile, in California, where chef Wayne Elias co-owns Los Angeles-based Rockwell Table & Stage and Crumble Catering, the state’s paid sick leave law went into effect on July 1, 2015. Elias says people don’t tend to call in sick unless they’ve recently given their notice (when you leave the job, you don’t get paid out for unused sick time). “The waiters and the servers are looking for more hours,” he says. “They would show up to work sick and I would have to send them home.”

When Elias has to send someone home sick, he asks them to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. “If you took your mother or a girlfriend out and a server walked up to you who appeared to be sick, wouldn’t you be a little concerned?” he says.

For Elias, the most challenging hole to fill is when a bartender is out sick, because not everyone has the proper bartender training. “Me as a manager that knows how to bartend could jump in or sometimes you have a server that you could throw into that position,” he says.

When a kitchen person or a server is out sick, sometimes if it’s not busy, he can get by with one fewer person. “Nobody knows on the floor if something is off,” Elias adds. “It’s like going to the theatre; the show must go on.”

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Austin, Texas-based freelancer Susan Johnston Taylor has written about food and business for publications including The Boston Globe, Civil Eats, Entrepreneur, FastCompany.com, Fresh Cup, and Pizza Today. She'd eat goat cheese on almost anything.