By Tim Krohn
---- — MANKATO — Karen Knox, Linda Good and others in a local book club know they're not going to change the world with their bit of activism.
But their goal is to make local people and elected officials aware of a problem that is gaining attention around the country: restaurant workers sickening others with food-borne illnesses because most restaurants don't give their employees paid sick time.
"Two-thirds of restaurant workers reported preparing and serving our food while being sick," Good said.
The Minnesota Department of Health has concluded that sick workers were the likely or suspected cause of nearly three-fourths of all norovirus outbreaks. Norovirus is the leading cause of food-borne illness.
The local group is not blaming the workers.
"Given the low wages restaurant workers earn, it's not surprising they go to work when they're sick," Knox said.
The women are part of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship book club that recently read "Behind the Kitchen Door" by Saru Jayaraman. The book looks at a number of problems in the restaurant industry, including the fact 90 percent of restaurant workers do not have access to sick leave.
Members of the group decided to do their part to bring the issue to light locally. "I think the public would be interested in this if they realize how often people are coming to work sick because they can't afford to lose a day's wages," said Knox, a retired English teacher.
Good, a retired Minnesota State professor, said the group decided to focus on a different restaurant chain each week for several weeks. When going out to eat, they simply talk to wait staff and ask them if they get sick leave — almost none do — and they will ask to talk to the manager to tell them of their concern. They also leave cards that say they disagree with restaurants not giving sick leave.
The group isn't looking to blame local restaurant managers or put them on the defensive. "We know the local managers don't have any authority to make changes with these corporate chains," Good said.
"We think more people can become involved in this. Things start small but can grow in real waves," Good said.
There are a few chains the local group isn't focusing on — Panera, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Little Caesar's Pizza and Five Guys — because they do offer paid sick days to employees.
They said the solution to the problem will require passage of local, state or national laws requiring most businesses to provide paid sick leave.
"I think it would be hard for restaurants to do this individually and remain competitive, so I think it has to become part of legislation," Knox said.
Dan McElroy leads Hospitality Minnesota, which includes the state restaurant association. He said his members are concerned about the state imposing another mandate.
"We're having a discussion about increasing the minimum wage and there's the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and businesses are having difficulty knowing what that's going to cost," McElroy said. "There's some concern of a piling-on effect."
He said many restaurants do provide sick days or flex time for employees who are sick. And he said it's a priority for restaurants to keep sick workers home.
"It's not good for our businesses to have people who are working sick."
He said any added employee costs also risks reducing jobs in the industry. He said some states that have increased the minimum wage significantly saw a reduction in restaurant jobs as more restaurants turned to pay-at-the-counter systems or put iPads on tables for ordering, reducing the number of wait staff needed.
More cities and states are passing mandatory sick-leave laws. New York recently passed an ordinance requiring any business with 20 or more employees to offer sick leave.
Connecticut, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C., and Seattle approved sick-leave rules before New York City did. But when Milwaukee established its own requirement in 2011, Wisconsin lawmakers overturned it.
Since then, Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arizona have approved laws banning local sick leave ordinances. In Florida, a ban approved by lawmakers is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, and a similar measure is pending in the Michigan Legislature — even though no city in Michigan has approved a sick leave law.
A proposal in Congress — The Healthy Families Act — would require those who employ 15 or more employees to give each employee one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Groups that analyze proposed legislation say the act has virtually no chance of passing in the current Congress.
For more information on the efforts to get sick days for restaurant employees, go to rocunited.org/dinersguide.