Behind the Kitchen Door: Serving Food While Sick

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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.

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