Recently I received an email about the “espresso martini” column I wrote a few weeks back:
“I was really bothered by your mention that you were serving drinks while you were sick. So was you co-worker. I sure hope you both didn’t have something communicable. People who wait tables and tend bars when they are sick are actually being more inconsiderate than somebody ordering an espresso martini, which I grant you is an abomination.”
That column ran two weeks ago, and since I write this column about a week in advance, it was close to a month ago since it was written, and several months since the actual event depicted took place. A lot has changed since then. The spread of the coronavirus in particular. So, I thought I might share some insights on the subject.
First of all, just to be perfectly clear, I wasn’t sick. I have seasonal allergies, which often exhibit as a cold: coughing, sneezing, stuffy head, etc. But trying to explain all of that in a column about an entirely different topic seemed unimportant at the time. Again, times certainly have changed.
Secondly, people in the service industry don’t usually take days off due to minor illnesses (neither do doctors, firefighters, lawyers, toll takers, real estate agents, or most anybody for that matter). Minor illnesses are just that, minor. Furthermore, sick days in the restaurant business are virtually nonexistent. Sure, there is a new California law that provides some relief, but it is hard to navigate and only covers a fraction of your lost income.
Also, in the restaurant industry, if you call in sick, that usually means the restaurant must run short staffed. Many people who work in this industry work two maybe three jobs, so getting coverage can be challenging. Throw in a tight hiring pool, and many restaurants are already short staffed to begin with. To which some people might say “So what?” Until the person saying that has their birthday/wedding/anniversary/engagement/job promotion party cancelled last minute because there is no one there to take care of them. Then suddenly it becomes a very big deal.
The California Retail Food Code governs how the restaurant business operates regarding employee health and food service. The laws are specific and pervasive. Every food handler in California must take a test and be certified. We are reading a lot in the news about “hand washing” and “touching of the face” etc. None of this is new to food handlers, because for us, it has been the law for quite some time. If you don’t get paid days off, and often don’t have health insurance, trust me, you are very cautious about getting sick. Furthermore, and I can’t stress this enough, working with well-defined communicable diseases in the food industry is against the law. Very few other industries have the same level of scrutiny, regarding illness, as does the food service industry.
Unfortunately, this is not true of the public that frequents food establishments. There was a “Family Guy” TV episode where the main character says to the manager of a local restaurant, “Those signs in the bathroom about handwashing are just for the employees right?” The manager replies, “Well, technically, yes.” A funny joke until you work with the public and realize that many people actually think that way. I have had people come into the restaurant where I have worked with the flu. I have had others sneeze into napkins and then try and hand them to me. I have had people cough in my face, spit food at me, sneeze on me and leave piles of used tissues on the bar. SNL did a funny skit the other day where actor Larry David (as Senator Bernie Sanders) said “Universal Health Care doesn’t seem so crazy now, does it?” All it takes is one crisis to show how vulnerable we all really are.
Hand washing and hand sanitizing are nothing new in the restaurant business. We are on guard about infectious disease every single day. In fact, it is the law. Punishable by fines and or imprisonment. Conscientious hand washing is just new to you people outside of the restaurant business. The fact of the matter is that you are probably more likely to get sick from a customer at a restaurant than from any employee. Because nobody is watching to make sure they are washing their hands. Nobody at all. And take it from me, someone who works with the public almost every day, when people aren’t made to be conscientious a good portion of them aren’t.
You can take that thought to the bank. Just be sure to wash your hands before and after entering.