Sick foodhandlers are a problem at many restaurants in USA and all around the world, being the source of many outbreaks of foodborne disease. Currently, in the Shigella outbreak linked to a Subway restaurant in Lombard, Illinois, sick foodhandlers are believed to have been the cause of the outbreak wich already has at least 113 confirmed illnesses. Likely, this number only scratches the surface when it comes to counting all outbreak victims. The number is more likely upwards of 200 to 300, if not more.
The Lombard Subway outbreak is reminiscent of another major Chicago-area outbreak, occurred in June and July 2003. In this case The Lake County Health Department concluded its investigation into a Salmonella outbreak at a Chili's restaurant located in Vernon Hills, Illinois, where the restaurant employees had used poor sanitation and food handling practices, including operating without hot water for an entire day, and operating without any running water whatsoever for the lunch rush on another day. More importantly Lake County stated that 28 Chili's employees had tested positive for Salmonella.
It’s clear that no restaurant owner can claim that they didn’t know better. The reason, of course, is that the law speaks very clearly on the issue of employees who work while ill saying that: "No person, while affected with a disease in a communicable form that can be transmitted by foods or who is a carrier of organisms that cause such a disease or while afflicted with a boil, or infected wound, or an acute respiratory infection, shall work in a food service establishment in any capacity in which there is a likelihood of such person contaminating food or food-contact surfaces with pathogenic organisms or transmitting disease to other persons."
One thing that restaurants can do to guard against foodhandler-caused outbreaks is to have a sick leave policy. The policy must not only forbid working while ill with any symptoms of gastrointestinal illness or influenza, but also provide for compensation to employees who elect to do the right thing and stay away from work while ill, or, at the very least, pay the sick day as any other working day without discounting it.
Unfortunately, these outbreaks are evidence that restaurants are not getting the message about sick employees. For example, The Institute for Women's Policy Research, an advocacy group, looked at job benefits nationally and it found as many as 85% of food service workers don't have paid sick days (the worst showing for any group). Also Dr. Tom Smith from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found in a study at workers broadly (not just the food industry) that people without paid sick days are more likely to go to work when they feel ill and that 68% of people without paid sick days have gone in with a contagious illness like the flu. The reasons are, between many others, that some workers, especially those who get paid by the hour, come in because they need the money. Others simply don't want to give the boss a reason to think they aren't committed to the job.
This are definitely issues that must come in consideration for any restaurants that want to avoid losing everything in a major outbreak of foodborne disease.