PhotoYou walk into your favorite coffee shop and notice the barista has bloodshot eyes and a runny nose – not to mention an occasional sneeze.

Uh-oh. Could that person preparing food and beverages behind the counter be sick?

Afraid so, and it's more common than you might think. A new survey by the Center for Research and Public Policy (CRPP) found that more than half of workers in the food industry go to work when they're sick.

They don't call in sick because they can't afford to. Food service workers are usually paid hourly and don't get sick days. They also don't want to leave their co-workers short-handed.

But their valor isn't doing anyone any favors. A food service worker with a cold or the flu can spread germs to both co-workers and customers.

CRPP polled more than 1,200 food workers at all stages of the food supply chain across the U.S. and Canada. It found 51% of employees reported they always or frequently go to work when sick.

Clueless bosses

The supervisors, meanwhile, have no clue. When the survey asked managers if employees ever came to work when they were sick, only 18% said yes.

To get an idea of how many germs are being spread, more than 20 million U.S. and Canadian frontline food workers grow, process, distribute, cook, and serve the food that is eaten by over 355 million consumers every day. When half come to work sick, that's a lot of germs.

“The vast majority of frontline food workers and their employers are committed to providing safe foods for their customers,” said Jeff Eastman, CEO of Alchemy. “The survey shows that over 90% of food workers feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers. So managers and supervisors need to better communicate why it’s okay to stay home when sick.”

The survey was conducted to delve into the attitudes and behaviors of the people who produce, prepare, and serve the food we eat.

Room for improvement

“While these findings are positive overall, there is always room for improvement,” Eastman said. “For example, while 93% of workers feel confident to stop work when they see a safety problem, it still leaves 7% of 20 million workers who do not. When it comes to safety, that number needs to be 100%.”

This is an issue of concern to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says its research shows that food service employees have reported to work, even when they were vomiting or had diarrhea.

The CDC study found food service workers were most likely to call in sick if the restaurant where they worked wasn't busy, had plenty of fill-in help, and had a policy of employees informing managers when they were ill.

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