Posted On: March 8, 2020

When to Send Restaurant Workers Home Sick

As a restaurant owner or manager, you know your customers want delicious food—that's free from bacteria and other pathogens.

While handwashing, food temperature monitoring, and other safety measures keep foodborne illness at bay, if you have a sick employee, there's only so much these measures can do. And with growing concerns about the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks, you need to be even more vigilant when it comes to responding to signs of infection.

However, before you send every employee home that sneezes on a shift, learn when you should actually send your workers home when they are sick.

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What Regulations Should You Follow?

Determining when an employee should go home sick can sometimes be a grey area. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) have regulations regarding the health of workers who handle food.

These regulations state that anyone with a contagious sickness should not be around food. This includes sore throats, fevers, vomiting, diarrhea, and colds. As we mentioned above, hairnets, gloves, and clean hands won't be enough to stop a sick worker from passing contaminants from the food they're handling onto your customers.

Instead, anyone who presents with these contagious symptoms should be sent home. Another option is to transfer the person who is sick to a job that doesn't require contact with food.

Who's Regulating the Coronavirus?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are providing coronavirus updates, including information on transmission, symptoms, treatment, and vaccines.

So when it comes to sick employees, coronavirus symptoms are very similar to the common cold: respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. If a restaurant employee feels they might have contracted the coronavirus, or they have a high risk of exposure—then the CDC recommends that you send them home immediately and advise them to contact their health care provider.

Example Replacement Jobs for Sick Workers

Most restaurants don't provide paid sick leave, which makes employees reluctant to tell managers when they're feeling unwell. While implementing some form of sick leave at your restaurant could solve this issue, it could take years to fully flesh out that type of program.

Luckily, there is a much easier short-term solution —give workers a replacement job while they're sick. Again, this is for those who are not at risk for the coronavirus. Some example duties include:

  • Greeting and seating guests
  • Managing non-food stock
  • Washing dishes
  • Bussing tables

While this type of work may not be very enticing, it ensures that your employees still get paid and work still gets done. Keep in mind that you should only give these replacement jobs to employees with certain types of illnesses.

When Should You Send Employees Home?

If an employee is experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, or a foodborne illness caused by E.coli or salmonella, you should send them home immediately. These types of sicknesses are so contagious that even being in the same area as food is dangerous.

This is especially true if your restaurant customers fall into high-risk categories, such as the elderly or children. When an employee is sent home because of a potentially contagious illness, the National Restaurant Association recommends that when they return, they present a doctor's note.

As we mentioned, with the lack of paid time off, employees can be eager to return to work—often prematurely. So, it's essential to get confirmation from a doctor that they are well before you allow them around food again.

Tips for Preventing the Spread of Disease

Sending employees home or giving them non-food related work is ultimately better for your restaurant and your customers. However, it can cause a shortage of staff and make shifts harder for everyone.

The best way to prevent that from happening is to prevent the spread of illness. Restaurant owners and managers should encourage and require employees to follow food safety best practices to prevent bacteria transfer from employee to employee. Examples include wearing and changing gloves, as well as frequent handwashing with soap (including wrists and fingernails)—these tips also apply to coronavirus prevention as well!

Employers should also provide multiple uniforms for employees, so they're able to wear a clean uniform daily. This uniform should include hair coverings and closed-toe shoes, not only to protect the food and restaurant customers but also to protect the employee.

Whose Responsibility is It to Determine Who Works?

Ultimately the responsibility of sending employees home falls upon restaurant owners and managers—especially when many employees will go to work sick so they don't miss any wages. However, this can create a tricky situation when you can't see some symptoms.

To combat this, employers should strive to create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing when they don't feel well. Managing sick employees is only one part of ensuring your restaurant stays free from foodborne illnesses.

Ensure you're up-to-date on the best strategies for preventing illnesses from food by completing our food safety manager training. Sign up today!

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