Why Restaurants Should Offer PTO Sick Time to Staff

Spring is just around the corner but that doesn’t mean we’re completely out of flu season just yet. Roughly 4,000 people died of the flu & pneumonia during the first week of February, and by the end of February flu-related deaths in children neared 100.

The flu shot, as good as it is, can only do so much. Talk to any medical professional and they’ll plead people to stay home when sick. For some, this option is fine. Sick time PTO or the ability to work from home makes it a viable decision. But it’s tougher for the restaurant industry where working from home can’t happen and hourly staff trying to make ends meet have little choice but to head into work.

By not offering your staff sick time PTO, you’re not only making their lives miserable, but you’re also putting the rest of your staff, your guests, and your restaurant’s reputation at risk. We don’t have to remind you all what happened with Chipotle just a couple years back, right? They had a rash of E.coli and norovirus outbreaks at some of their locations and took quite the hit to their reputation because of it.

It’s How the Flu Thrives

The flu (in all of its various flavors) thrives in groups that don’t have paid sick days. During the 2009 H1NH1 outbreak, an estimated 7 million people in the US caught the flu from their co-workers. People without paid sick days are at a greater risk of being exposed to the virus.

And, of course, it’s workers who have the most frequent contact with the public – i.e., your restaurant staff – who are the least likely to have paid sick time. Fifty-one percent of food works “always” or “frequently” go into work when they’re sick, based on a 2015 survey; an additional 38% “sometimes” go into work. That’s 89% of restaurant staff who are going into work, handling food, and interacting with your guests while sick.

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Left with No Other Choice

That same survey said 90% of restaurant staff feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their guests but go into work because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” For some, minimum wage + tips is enough for a living, but it’s scraping by for most (especially in higher cost of living areas). And a 2012 study from Oliva’s Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found 79% of food workers have no paid sick time.

A combination of higher wages and a comprehensive paid sick time policy could alleviate that problem, according to the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Having the financial cushion or ability to stay home at rest would help prevent sick workers from coming and possibly infecting your guests.

But it’s not a panacea by any means. Some food workers go in sick because they “don’t want to let co-workers down.” A missed shift by one means extra work for the rest – or it means someone is coming in on their day off. We’ve all been there and know how awful that can be.

Other employees are worried about retaliation if they miss a shift, which is a huge red flag of a toxic working environment and culture, but that’s a topic for another post.

Sick Staff Hurts Restaurant Reputations (and Revenue)

While we can’t talk enough about the quality of life improvement having paid sick time for your restaurant’s staff is, we know restaurant operators also have to balance that with a million other priorities – including your restaurant’s bottom line.

Let’s look at Chipotle and their infamous E.coli & norovirus outbreak from 2015. Last summer, Chipotle said that they lost $1 billion over five days because a single employee came into work sick. That’s not a typo. The restaurant employee spread the norovirus to more than 130 guests over that time span. Once headlines hit about the outbreak, Chipotle’s stock tanked. Hard.

Chipotle’s average unit volumes also plummeted after the outbreak as people were afraid to get sick by eating at Chipotle locations. The fast-casual chain still hasn’t completely recovered from it. At their current pace, it’ll take more than five years to regain lost sales. Yikes!

This is an extreme case, of course, because of the nature of being a large chain. Independent restaurants won’t have to deal with a nation-wide pandemic or media panic if they get guests sick, but they also lack the resources to stay afloat if it does happen.

Also, don’t you owe it to your guests to keep them safe & healthy, regardless of how it might affect your coffers?

What Uncle Sam is Doing About It

Since almost 80% of the industry are without sick time, it’s putting the general public at risk. Which means Uncle Sam has stepped in at a few times to try to course correct the issue – to varying degrees of success.

In 2016, Colorado entertained a bill that would’ve required restaurant owners to post a notice on their door if their employees weren’t granted at least five paid sick days per year. It didn’t pass. In Washington, paid sick time is now accrued by all hourly employees (one hour of PTO for every 40 hours worked). Hawaii is looking into a paid sick time bill. In total, five states and 26 cities in the US currently require restaurants to offer paid sick leave to their employees.

What Restaurant Operators are Doing About Paid Sick Time

Some restaurants have started adding sick PTO to their overall benefit package. Narrative Coffee is one such restaurant. They’ve added paid sick time to their staff compensation, noting that they haven’t seen a significant cost to their business but improved morale.

“If your staff is being taken care of then they can take care of your guests better,” Maxwell Mooney, founder of Narrative Coffee said. “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 in Chicago is of a similar mind, having offered sick PTO since 2013. They cross-train their staff so they can better adapt to someone calling out sick. The restaurant executives also said that staff are typically looking to pick up extra shifts and that they try to take possible overtime pay into account when budgeting & planning.