Car accidents, broken bones, mental illness, cancer – you’ve likely seen the crowdfunding appeals for coworkers and friends in the restaurant industry facing prolonged time off from work due to an illness or serious injury. What are the challenges faced by these workers, typically hourly wage earners, and what opportunities do industry employers have to better accommodate injured or ill employees?
Josh Dorrian was a line cook for a small, locally owned restaurant in Minneapolis when he seriously injured his ankle on a day off in 2017. It has affected his life ever since. “I called my sous chef while at the emergency room. He was totally understanding,” says Dorrian. “I learned I would require surgery and would be out indefinitely, he was still understanding. But once I was cleared to work in a walking boot, the chef de cuisine refused to give me back my hours even though they were understaffed and actively searching for cooks.”
A long and frustrating battle for hours with a local partner restaurant ensued and, ultimately, both Dorrian and his original sous chef ended up leaving the restaurants.
“Being out of work that long – longer than expected – was very financially hard on my partner and me,” Dorrian says. “If she wasn’t front-of-house, I have no doubt we would have ended up homeless. I basically destroyed my ankle. The injury still affects me, but my current employer is very accommodating.”
Dorrian’s story is far from unusual. Without a separate disability insurance policy, an hourly employee who is injured outside of work has little financial safety net. In some cases, employees may apply for Social Security Disability Insurance, but filing a claim can take a long time and, if someone qualifies, the amount awarded is typically less than $1,200 per month.
There is no federal law that requires service industry employers to provide income protection for employees who can’t work because of a medical condition or injury off the job. Five states (New Jersey, Hawaii, Rhode Island, New York and California) offer short-term disability programs. In most cases, employees need to use any sick leave or paid time off and unpaid leave to recover.
Danielle Wilhelm was a server at a privately-owned restaurant when she was attacked and assaulted with a baseball bat on her way home from work. “My boss was very supportive at first,” she says. “I had stitches in my face and two black eyes, so I was waiting for the physical stuff to go away before I went back to work.”
After two weeks, she was ready to serve, but her boss replaced her for all remaining shifts.
“I was out of a job for two months even when I said I wanted to come back,” Wilhelm says. “It wasn’t fair for him to give my job to someone else for two months without talking to me about it. I had a broken finger and a dislocated knee, but it didn’t affect my work. After that, everything went downhill. I ended up getting fired without being told I was fired. They just took me off the schedule.”
Wilhelm then took a job as a server at a privately-owned restaurant chain. She still had a dislocated knee from her attack, but she needed to work to pay the bills. “I was working more than 12 hours a day and couldn’t get a break,” she says. “I ended up with two slipped discs in my back and my employer didn’t care.”
When the pain got too bad, she would tell them well before her scheduled shift that she wouldn’t be able to close, but said she would be placed on the schedule to close regardless. “I always had a valid reason when I couldn’t work 3 pm to 3:30 am,” she claims. But she felt like her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Most restaurant industry employers do not provide short-term disability benefits, so each employee would be responsible for purchasing their own plan privately. The average cost of short-term disability insurance is approximately 1 to 3 percent of annual gross income and most hourly wage earners opt out of the expense of purchasing coverage.
Ideally, employers would offer this coverage as part of an employment package or at a discounted rate. However, in the hospitality industry, that appears to be rare. But even without this benefit, there are opportunities for employers to work with injured or ill employees to ensure they recover fully and rejoin the work team as a valuable member.
Wilhelm was also involved in a car accident and had a ruptured cyst in February 2018, and her current employer was very supportive. “They helped me cover my shifts and told me not to worry, that if I was sick they didn’t want me coming in,” she says. “They make sure everyone is taken care of so the work environment is more enjoyable.”
Emily Peterson is a bartender at a family-owned restaurant and bar in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. “I ended up in crisis and in the hospital, so my only choice was to disclose that I have bipolar disorder,” she says.
As terrified as she was to disclose her illness, Peterson needed to have a week’s worth of shifts covered immediately. She found her employers to be compassionate and understanding and her coworkers banded together to cover her shifts.
“I never use my illness as an excuse. I’m physically able to perform all tasks as a bartender, but my employer does understand when I am in crisis and works with me,” she says.
Peterson says she feels her employer has been empathetic but has the same expectations of her as they do of her coworkers.
“I am a great employee and take care of the bar as they expect,” she says. “And, in turn, they understand that I didn’t choose this illness and work with me when I’m not well.”
Peterson’s advice to other employers hoping to offer commendable injury and illness policies? Have compassion and treat employees with respect and your employees will respond in kind.