The last thing that diners want to see when enjoying a $35.13 prix-fixe dinner during Restaurant Week — or any other meal — is a waiter sneezing in their food.
And that is exactly what the Paid Sick Days for All Coalition is counting on with its latest campaign: restaurant employees dressed up as ghoulishly sick chefs.
“Achoo!!! That could have been your food,” their signs read.
The coalition — organized by Jews United for Justice, Restaurant Opportunities Center-DC and the DC Employment Justice Center — has been canvassing around the city this week and will be at Eastern Market on Sunday, aiming to inform consumers that a 2008 D.C. law that mandates paid sick leave excludes tipped restaurant workers and anyone working their first year on a job.
They are trying to build public support ahead of a D.C. Council legislative meeting Sept. 17, when council member Marion Barry will introduce legislation to address the tipped-worker exemption.
The coalition is also lobbying for the new bill to shorten the period of time before employees can accrue sick leave and to step up enforcement of the law (just 68 percent of all businesses are compliant, according to a city audit released in June).
Some say the campaign — which has included workers dressed up as chefs — misrepresents the law. It is “misleading because food preparers, including chefs and all those working in the kitchen, are all covered by the  paid sick leave act,” said Andrew Kline, a legislative adviser to the industry group Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. He says the group hears that tipped workers “would prefer to call in sick and not get paid for the day and pick up a shift later.”
Kline’s argument is based on the low hourly wages that tipped workers earn (the minimum wage for tipped workers in D.C. is $2.77). But the Paid Sick Days for All coalition is proposing that wages earned on a sick day would be based on the average earnings for waitstaff and bartenders in the region according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or about $10 per hour, according to Monica Kamen, a community organizer with Jews United for Justice.
“We’ve heard stories of workers coming in with swine flu, pink eye and any number of diseases that could be passed on just because they could not afford” to stay home, said Kamen, who pointed to a 2011 study conducted by the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center-DC that found that 59 percent of workers have prepared, cooked or served food while sick.
“We find it to be a really pressing issue for our members, especially during restaurant week when so many of them are working double” shifts, says Stephanie Ross, the lead coordinator at Restaurant Opportunity Center-DC. “It can be an exhausting line of business, and when people are ill, it’s a really hard decision for them to make if they are going to stay home to take care of themselves or will themselves out of bed.”
– Marissa Payne and Rachel Sadon