CSPI releases consumer’s guide to restaurant sick leave policies during Covid-19 pandemic

fast food worker

Those that have it at all cover few employees and offer scant benefits

With the current outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, public health officials are urging that sick workers stay home to avoid spreading the infection to others. Yet more than three quarters of food service workers in the U.S. lack paid sick leave, and over half report coming to work sick. This is not just bad for workers; it also puts consumers at risk.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 does not survive for long on food but spreads easily among people. Restaurant workers may not always know if they’ve been infected with COVID-19, and lack of paid sick leave could affect whether they are able to stay home if they develop symptoms of the disease.

CSPI surveyed the 20 largest restaurant chains by sales to investigate how they are handling paid sick leave during the pandemic.

The results are dismal: Twelve of the 20 largest chains (60 percent) did not disclose any policy on paid leave, and only three of the chains (Starbucks, Chipotle, and Olive Garden) offer sick leave at all locations nationwide. But the benefits may be as little as three days leave annually, and some of companies have also been accused of applying pressure tactics to keep employees from using paid leave when they are entitled to it.

“This pandemic is shining a harsh spotlight on the horrible job we’ve done making sure the people who handle our food are not forced to work sick,” said CSPI deputy director of regulatory affairs Sarah Sorscher. “If we want to stop the spread of this disease, we need to make sure workers in restaurants and other busy public spaces never have to choose between protecting their and the public’s health and paying their bills.”

McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC have leave policies that cover only company-owned stores, leaving out the more than 90 percent of their locations that are owned by franchisees. Most chains make new employees work for weeks or months to accrue leave before they can use it. And new hires at McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Olive Garden have to wait 90 days to a year before they even qualify for the benefit.

No company the group surveyed offers 14 days sick leave as a standard practice—the time needed to quarantine for COVID-19. Six restaurants (Starbucks, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Panera, Pizza Hut, and KFC) have announced emergency leave policies for workers impacted by COVID-19. But most of these emergency policies cover only company-owned stores, and some may not cover all workers with symptoms.

Although a package of measures currently moving through Congress originally offered permanent sick leave to all workers, it has since been watered down in negotiations with Senate Republicans and the White House, and now omits requirements that would apply to very large or very small employers. That means that some 80 percent of workers would be excluded, according to an analysis by The New York Times editorial board.

“Infectious diseases are not limited to certain categories of companies,” said Sorscher. “This failure to protect workers in a pandemic is a failure to protect all of us. Congress can and should do better.”

Update 4/2/2020: Restaurant Brands International, owner of Popeyes, Burger King and Tim Hortons​, has instituted a policy offering 14 days of paid leave for employees at company-owned stores.

Contact Info:  Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Richard Adcock (radcock[at]cspinet.org).