The power of paid sick days for food service workers
Eating & Drinking

The power of paid sick days for food service workers

In 2012, I was working at a well-respected restaurant in the ByWard Market when I saw my kitchen colleague suddenly leave the line. It was not unusual for a cook to exit in the middle of service for a quick cigarette — often the only way to get a break — but I could tell this was different. When he returned to the kitchen, his face was pale. With order chits piling up, I asked him if he was okay.

“I’ve been vomiting,” he said tersely. We continued working side by side until the end of the night. Not knowing how contagious this stomach bug was, I could only hope that the rest of the kitchen crew and our customers would make it out unharmed.

Nothing about this incident was unusual. Anyone working in food service has similar war stories. A lack of paid sick days makes working while sick the norm.

I opened my bakery in 2013 after realizing that I would have a better shot at making a career as a baker by being self-employed. By the time Covid hit, my bakery was in its seventh year and had grown to 12 employees. It quickly became clear that this event was going to affect our industry in a big way. Sure enough, the pandemic was a tipping point for workers; they left the industry in droves for safer jobs and better conditions. Many of them realized that their health was more important than their job.

Left: a baker at work inside Bread By Us. Photo by Merritt Decloux. Right: rounds of dough await their turn in the oven. Photo by Jessica Carpinone.

Since I opened Bread By Us, I have been offering employees paid sick days. Yes, this is an expense, but it is part of a healthy workplace culture. The proof lies in the fact that we have retained the majority of our staff throughout the pandemic, our business is still operating, and we have never had a workplace Covid outbreak.

The government of Ontario introduced mandatory paid sick days into the Employment Act in 2017 — a mere two days, but still something. However, that plan was scrapped by the Ford government. The call for legislated paid sick days in Ontario has been loud and continuous throughout the pandemic, both from workers and from the broader public. But despite unprecedented public pressure, very little has changed. Opposition parties have tried numerous times to pass paid-sick-day legislation, but it has been repeatedly shut down. Most recently, the NDP tabled another paid-sick-days bill in November 2022, which also had the support of the Liberals. It was voted down by the Progressive Conservatives.

From the archives: New small batch bakery Bread By Us sets up shop in Hintonburg

Our food service industry can’t afford to miss this opportunity. There are unprecedented labour shortages (170,000 vacancies, according to Restaurants Canada) and advocates are calling for “streamlined immigration” programs to deal with the problem. But recruiting newcomers to fill the labour shortage does not address the root cause of the problem: these jobs suck.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and some small businesses are forging ahead with another vision for the industry. Several are right here in Ottawa. They recognize the positive impacts — to their bottom line, yes, but also more broadly — of good, stable jobs. “As an industry, it’s imperative we normalize paid sick days. Food service has long been considered a transitional job and if we want more talent to stay, we need to offer enticing careers,” explains Liz Mok, owner of Moo Shu Ice Cream in Centretown.

To business owners hesitant to offer paid sick days, Mok suggests they rethink the way they look at the issue.

“In other expense categories, businesses are accustomed to paying more for higher quality, consistency, and predictability. Why is this not applied to labour? Not offering paid sick days doesn’t prevent workers from getting sick. It only takes damage control out of your hands when workers feel pressured to work while unwell. Smart businesses build reasonable disruptions into their operations, and people getting sick is one very predictable one.”

Rebuilding the food service industry without prioritizing decent work would just drag our industry further into chaos.

The only way forward is to rethink an industry built on temporary, precarious labour. Whatever comes next in the food service industry needs to be centred around decent jobs, ones that can evolve into careers.

The food service industry is not the only place where paid sick leave is elusive, but it occupies a special position in the business landscape. For one, there is a measured desire to have a great local food scene, but there are not enough people willing to work in it. In addition, given our proximity to food, our health is of public concern. Frankly, keeping sick food service workers out of kitchens is a no-brainer.

Jessica Carpinone is the co-owner of Bread By Us Bakery in Hintonburg. She is also a member of the Better Way Alliance, a network of businesses advocating for decent work. Follow her on Twitter @breadbyus.