Providing sick leave to restaurant workers could help prevent the spread of foodborne illness because ill workers are key drivers of outbreaks at restaurants, a new government report shows.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data on Tuesday covering 800 outbreaks of foodborne illness at restaurants between 2017 and 2019.
The cases were reported by 25 state and local health departments. They included outbreaks of norovirus about 47% of the time and salmonella in about 19% of cases.
Researchers could identify the cause of outbreaks in about two-thirds of cases. Among those, 41% were related to workers handling food while ill. Only 44% of restaurants surveyed offered workers sick leave, however.
Restaurants and their workers also had communication gaps that helped foster outbreaks. For example, despite written policies at some restaurants that required staff to inform managers when they're ill, only 23% were specific about the five symptoms that should keep a worker home. Those symptoms were vomiting, diarrhea, a wound with pus, a sore throat with a fever and jaundice.
Salmonella causes diarrhea about two to three days after contact. Symptoms can include infection, chills, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Norovirus also causes vomiting and diarrhea two days after infection.
The numbers were reported in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
About 16% of the restaurants where there were outbreaks communicated four key recommendations. These included having a policy that sick staff should contact their manager, reporting to management illness with any of the five risky symptoms, not allowing workers to work while ill and telling workers what five symptoms should keep them home.
"Obviously, encouraging employees who are clearly sick to stay home is good policy. Whether or not they do that, when they're facing the possibility of not getting a paycheck may be an issue, especially if they're not that sick yet," Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in cases related to foodborne illness, told CNN.
Marler added that recommending hepatitis A vaccinations for restaurant workers could prevent some of the most serious outbreaks.
He recalled a 2021 case in Roanoke, Va., that led to one death, two liver transplants and two of the three involved restaurants filing for bankruptcy.
Even if workers have sick leave, that probably won't stop all illness, Marler noted, because often people are contagious before their symptoms surface.
"So, they're coming to work and they don't know they're sick at all, and they're transmitting salmonella or norovirus, or they're at the very beginnings of their illness" and so not sick enough to stay home, Marler said.