by Jacob Feinspan
This week is Restaurant Week - and food establishments around the city will be flooded with people taking advantage of the summer tradition of sampling chefs' specialties at four-star restaurants and neighborhood joints alike. For some, this will be date night, for some, time to catch up with friends, and for others, a once-a-year lunchtime tradition with co-workers.
The restaurant industry continues to be one of the fastest growing industries in the country, and in Washington, D.C., the restaurant scene has welcomed world-famous chefs at a steady pace over the last decade. Foodies delight at each new offering from Jose Andres or Richard Sandoval. And online guides like Yelp make dining choices even easier.
It's safe to assume that most diners spend significantly more time scrolling through their options on Open Table than they do thinking about whether their server has paid sick days. But considering the fact that most tipped workers in the District do not have paid sick days, and that many come to work sick as a result of this, it's a fact worth considering.
Imagine that you have an hourly job to support your family. One day you wake up feeling awful. Lying in bed, you realize that if you don't go to work, you're not going to be able to pay the rent. Or even worse, you might be fired for staying home to recover and not infect others - those "others" would include both your co-workers and, of course, your patrons.
According to the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Washington, D.C., this scenario is all too real for thousands of workers. In 2008, Washington passed a groundbreaking law, the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act, allowing workers to take paid time off to recover from illness or domestic violence. But at the last minute, all restaurant workers who were paid tips were excluded, as was anyone who had been at their job for less than a year.
When workers don't have paid sick days, it doesn't simply impact them and their families. It impacts all of us. Take the story of Woong Chang, a restaurant worker and a member of the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Washington, D.C.
When Chang moved to Washington from California, he found work as a bartender at a local restaurant, earning Washington's "tipped" minimum wage of $2.77 per hour, plus tips. A month later, Chang woke up with a fever and a cough, but went to work anyway; as a tipped worker in D.C., he did not have paid sick days and he couldn't afford to lose a day's wages in order to stay home. After a few excruciating days working on the job, serving people food and drinks while he suffered a high fever, runny nose, and a terrible cough, he finally decided he needed to see a doctor. Chang learned that he had swine flu, and he had to take unpaid time off for his sake and the sake of the customers. Because he didn't have paid sick days, there was no protection for Chang's job either - by the time he recovered, Chang was unemployed and left in a sea of debt, unable to pay his bills.
Unfortunately, Chang's story isn't so different from the stories of thousands of workers in Washington who are forced to choose daily between going to work sick and paying their rent. A recent survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Center found that more than 80 percent of all restaurant workers in the city do not get paid sick days, and that nearly 60 percent of restaurant workers admitted to having cooked, prepared or served food while sick. Paid sick days for all would not only protect people's jobs and financial security, but also reduce the District's health care costs and limit the spread of illness.
Some will argue that businesses can't afford to provide this benefit. But a study from the Women's Policy Research Institute shows that offering paid sick days and other benefits often saves businesses money by retaining staff members instead of constantly running job searches and then having to train new employees.
In these tough times, workers can't afford not to have paid sick days. It's good for workers, an obvious benefit for public health and the right thing to do. So when you're out for a meal for Restaurant Week, let your server and the restaurant know how you feel - join hundreds of others across the city in writing "I support paid sick days" on your check as you leave.
Jacob Feinspan is the executive director of Jews United for Justice, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization.