This Restaurant Week, Jews Wash Their Hands of Unsanitary Treatment of Workers

This woman needs a sick day!

Call us crazy, but we’re going to Restaurant Week 2012 to do something other than eat. We care about fair working environments and sanitary restaurant conditions, and we want everybody to know.

Starting on Monday, throughout Restaurant Week, members of Jews United for Justice, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and the DC Employment Justice Center will mobilize to educate consumers about how the lack of paid sick days for restaurant workers is forcing waiters and cooks to work while sick, compromising the health of all of us. The campaign is called DC Paid Sick Days for All, and it strives to achieve both justice for workers and more sanitary conditions for consumers, with one fair and simple reform.

For those of us who care about the sustainability and healthiness of our food systems, it’s not enough to think about how animals are raised or how far our food traveled. Equally important is the question of how the people who cook and serve our food are treated.

Although the DC Council passed a law in 2008 that guarantees all workers in the District up to seven days of paid sick days, a last-minute amendment was made to the law, excluding all tipped restaurant workers from earning this benefit. Meanwhile, the minimum wage for tipped workers is just a couple bucks per hour, offering very little stability in the average worker’s paychecks.

A survey conducted in 2010 by the Restaurant Opportunities Center reported that over 80% of all restaurant workers in the city do not get paid sick days, and because they often have to choose between their health and their pay, 59% of restaurant workers across the city have cooked, prepared or served food while sick. According to ROC’s survey, even workers who are supposed to be covered under the current law still are not able to earn paid leave, either because they don’t know about the law or their employer simply does not comply.

Woong Chang, a local bartender, recalls serving drinks to customers while sick with the swine flu. “It was by far the sickest I had ever been in my entire life,” he says. After taking unpaid time off to recover, he returned to work, only to discover that he had lost his job.

The goal of the Paid Sick Days for All campaign is to ensure that all workers in DC are afforded access to paid sick days. Workers who lack paid sick days risk losing their wages or even their jobs if they stay home to take care of themselves or their families.

Nikki Lewis, Coordinator of the DC Restaurant Opportunities Center and a long-time restaurant worker and DC resident, says that “not only are earned paid sick days reasonable and possible, they’re necessary for the continued growth and sustainability of a healthy DC workforce and economy.”

Organizers are now gearing up to deliver flowers and get-well cards to restaurant workers across the city as a token of appreciation and sign of concern for the people who cook and serve their meals. On August 15th, organizers from JUFJ, ROC, and EJC will be stationed in Dupont Circle, U St., and Chinatown to let other customers know that as they go to enjoy their Restaurant Week deals, there is a good chance that their waiter could be sick, all because they couldn’t afford to take the day off and get better.

This is the first in a series of actions that will educate consumers, workers, and employers about the deficiencies in the 2008 law and encourage restaurant owners to implement their own sick leave policies, for the sake of their workers and the health of their customers.

So join us at Restaurant Week (for details, see the event’s Facebook page) or email organizer Monica Kamen at to demand better for the people who make and serve us food. Because sometimes leaving a good tip isn’t quite enough.