Behind the Kitchen Door: Serving Food While Sick

  • submit to reddit

This is an excerpt from Saru Jayaraman’s book Behind the Kitchen Door. Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, appeared on Moyers & Company to talk about food workers’ fight for a living wage and better working conditions. 

I had a really bad cold. My nose was running, I was sneezing, and I had a bad cough and a fever. I could not call in sick because no work meant no money and I couldn’t afford it at that time. My kids were very young, so I went to work to see if I could make it through the day. Halfway through the day, the sneezing, coughing, and runny nose got worse. I said to the manager, “I am really sick and need to go because I could make others sick and I am dealing with food.” She laughed and told me, “Try not to cough then.” So I had to work that day sick, and who knows how many customers I got sick because I couldn’t go to the back and leave the counter to wash my hands after every sneeze or nose wipe. Later on, all of us got sick, one by one, and all this came from another worker who came to work sick, like me, and was not allowed to leave work.

— Fast-Food Worker, Woman, 10 Years in the Industry, Detroit

It’s common sense: the meal that arrives at your table when you eat out is not just a product of its raw ingredients. It’s a product of the hands that chop, cook, and plate it, and the people to whom those hands belong. Still, how our food is handled in a restaurant, and by whom, is something over which we have almost no control. Most of us have experienced food poisoning at least once, but we don’t usually know what, or who, caused it.

My own experience was unforgettable to me, though a common experience of many. Mamdouh and I were in the process of trying to open ROC’s first worker-owned restaurant. The restaurant was Mamdouh’s idea. After losing his job at Windows on the World, he’d dreamed of opening his own restaurant with a group of his former coworkers. All of them — the survivors — were jobless after 9/11.

We finally did open it, a restaurant called COLORS, which reflected the workers’ extraordinary diversity — but it took many years of struggle and conflict, help from a lot of different friends, and lots and lots of meetings. One of those meetings was with Brian Glick and Carmen Huertas, law professors from Fordham University and the City University of New York who’d agreed to work with us to draft the bylaws and governing documents for the restaurant. Early in the process, Brian invited Mamdouh and me to eat lunch at an Indian restaurant in Midtown near the law school. Brian was treating and it really was a treat. The restaurant was beautiful — gold-plated silver dishware, ornate chairs and tables, fancy folded napkins and delicious food. Customers here expected perfection, and it definitely appeared as though they got it. It was a joy to be talking about the thrilling prospect of opening a worker-owned restaurant over creamed spinach, eggplant curry and chicken tikka masala.

When I got home several hours later, my stomach started to feel strange. It had been an incredibly busy day, and I tried to relax by watching television. By nine that night I was doubled over in pain. I hadn’t yet made the connection between my stomach pain and eating out at the fancy Indian restaurant. All I could think about was my discomfort. What happened after that is familiar to most of us, and not something I need to describe. At some point in the middle of my misery I thought about what I’d eaten in the last 24 hours. The only meal that had been unusual for me was the one I had eaten at the Indian restaurant.

I was up most of the night and barely able to get out of bed the next morning. At the time I was helping Floriberto and his coworkers fight for their stolen wages and end other abuses at the restaurant where they worked, so I had no choice but to attend a major settlement conference with the restaurant’s defense lawyers that afternoon. I hobbled into the fancy law firm clutching my Pepto-Bismol. The opposing counsel joked that the defense counsel had made me “that sick.”

Saru Jayaraman on All Work and No Pay

From Poverty Wages to Poor Sanitation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans suffers from food poisoning each year, and 3,000 of us die from it. This seems only natural, given that most of us eat out at least once a week. We’re bound to get sick at least once or twice with a foodborne illness when many different hands are touching our food. Incidents of food poisoning are of course not unique to Indian restaurants. Most of us do wonder, though, after getting sick, How did this happen? Where did this come from? And what exactly happens behind the restaurant kitchen door is a complete mystery to most of us.

Although we have become obsessed with healthy, local, sustainable, organic, grass-fed, wild, and generally “better” food, we usually have no idea how that food is prepared and under what conditions. We should, however, know this: the health and safety and overall working conditions of restaurant workers in the United States directly affect the health and safety of consumers.

ROC has found in industry-wide surveys that the vast majority of restaurants across the country pressure their employees to work while sick or injured.
ROC has found in industry-wide surveys that the vast majority of restaurants across the country pressure their employees to work while sick or injured — giving us, the diners, an extra helping of germs with our meals and putting us at risk for foodborne illness. If this doesn’t surprise you, consider another pattern: the “low road” restaurants that don’t take great care of their employees, especially with regard to wages, tend to be the same restaurants that don’t take great care of their customers, especially with regard to food safety.

ROC research shows that the employers who steal tips, don’t pay overtime, force employees to work off the clock and don’t provide health benefits are the same employers who pressure their workers to engage in practices that threaten the health and safety of customers. In our experience, this is because employers who cut corners and steal from their workers are also likely to cut corners when it comes to customer health and safety.

Isn’t that common sense? If a restaurant isn’t responsible enough to pay its workers properly, how can we expect it to be responsible enough to make sure that the food doesn’t include an extra helping of germs?


Excerpt from Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman, published by Cornell University Press. © 2013. All rights reserved.

  • submit to reddit
  • rg9rts

    The typical american business model, no surprise here, unless mandated by law “benefits” such as sick time do not exist.

  • Robert Thomas

    I usually only bother to comment on Moyers & Co. segments here in order to excoriate impotent, poorly informed sanctimonious lefty whinging that makes up much of the program material.

    This segment deserves applause. I am very impressed with Ms Jayaraman’s work for tipped workers whose employers we are all responsible for having allowed to get away with cheating their hard working employees. I’ll buy the book, and promote the activities of the ROC. Good job, and good interview.

  • Rusty Wilson

    The biggest myth in America is that democracy can exist within capitalism.

  • Robert Thomas

    Huh. Paul Bunyan, I would have thought.

  • Avatar

    I would rather to eat at local pizzas, Chinese restaurants, Indian restaurants, and local, trusted restaurants who pays their workers well and provide them with paid sick times off. Oh even better, Vermont just passed series of laws prohibit ALEC from impose the anti-sick days off.

  • work in casino

    There are other industries where the tipped worker gets ‘ripped off’. Not just by the employer – but by the CUSTOMERS! That’s usually because they don’t know the workers ‘work for tips’. Most people don’t realize that the workers they encounter in a casino WORK FOR TIPS, and get FAR less than minimum wage PLUS tips. It’s a sore point with casino DEALERS watching the cocktail server get tossed a dollar chip (or MORE if the player is winning) for a bottled water or soda, then the player walks away with $1000 after buying in for $100 without tipping the dealer. I agree that corporations should pay their employees a LIVING wage before tips, but CUSTOMERS should be informed that their SERVERS (waiters/waitresses, valet, casino dealers, etc) are working for tips. There’s a MYTH that the CASINO pays dealers $70 plus dollars an hour – we WISH! Many start at $4 an hour BUT WE’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SAY WE ACCEPT TIPS UNLESS YOU ASK! MYTH BUSTER: most casino dealers make less than $20 per hour INCLUDING base pay of $4 ph, less than 1/3 of the MYTH of $70. Even companies that provide sick-days/paid-time-off do so AT THE BASE RATE and do NOT provide minimum-wage for that time: if you were going to lose over 3/4 of your paycheck by taking vacation, would you even GO on a vacation???
    Basically, if this worker is providing a service within a business, like a cocktail server or dealer, they are working for tips and being paid LESS THAN MIN-WAGE by the company they are working for. And that means that big companies are making money by NOT PAYING THEIR EMPLOYEES as well as from YOU using their services.

  • Burgess Harrison

    Mr Moyers. I just saw your interview on this subject. I rarely comment on stories but I felt compelled in this case.

    You are a great interviewer but in this case I did not see or hear any real arguments from the other side. Everything was slanted to the point of the of your guest. Having started in the restaurant industry as my first job washing dishes at age 14 I understand the issues.

    Everyone agrees on the concept of a living wage but how is that accomplished in reality. I chuckle at people that talk about it but have never started or run a business. It is not as easy as people make it out to be. Your guest should go out and open a restaurant and pay $8 per hour and see how it goes. I also take exception to the comparison to slavery. Wages may be low but people still have a choice. Slavery did not include any sense of choice except life or death.

    I am also wondering about the impact of higher prices. Who does it really impact? People of lesser means. Wether we like it or not, Americans like our low prices. Low prices require lower costs. I am just not sure how to achieve this wonderful goal without higher prices at some point.

    I do not have the answer. This is a tough question all around but just to say that we should raise the minimum wage and that solves everything is not the answer either. I really urge all those that know better how to run a business to go out and start one using all the great ideas and higher costs that they propose. Considering that most businesses fail today anyway it would be interesting to see if these folks could better the 9 out of 10 statistic of business failures with their higher cost ideas.

    I did a little, and I stress, little, research and it seems that ROC has been behind some worker owned restaurants that appear to be money losers and have health department violations. I also cannot find the annual report for the organization on their website. If it is there it is not readily apparent. Not very transparent. Mr. Moyers did not bring any of these things up in order to provide any type of balance to the interview. On another note, this is one of the reasons why some people do not like PBS and believe that it uses taxpayer funds but offers biased reporting and interviews. For the record I like and listen to Public Radio all the time.

    I believe that all workers should have good pay and benefits but unlike Ms. Jayaraman, I don’t think that all these things can be legislated or mandated. Who would argue that someone should not have a living wage? No one. Getting there is another story. It’s complex and for every action there are unintended consequences. If an employer is doing something wrong or illegal like taking tips, that should be addressed but we have to be careful with mandates because at some point in time mandates can come around to you and your organization.

    Quick story. Limes have skyrocketed in price. The street vendors in Mexico are being hurt. Customers are stealing the few they put out. Let’s say they had one employee what are they to do when they already work on slim margins? I know it’s Mexico but you get the point, it’s not as easy as it sounds and when you are paying $10 for your McDonald’s lunch per person it hurts the low income worker. Notice that the dollar menu has things that cost more than a buck. Food for thought.

  • thepsyker

    “I chuckle at people that talk about it but have never started or run a
    business. It is not as easy as people make it out to be. Your guest
    should go out and open a restaurant

    From the article

    “My own experience was unforgettable to me, though a common experience of
    many. Mamdouh and I were in the process of trying to open ROC’s first
    worker-owned restaurant