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Should food handlers be paid for time off work, if they have diarrhoea and vomiting?

by | Jul 28, 2013

One of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of Norovirus is excluding ill food handlers. So why doesn’t it happen? Is it anything to do with the fact food handlers do not always get paid whilst off sick??

      Since I was 14 I have worked for various catering businesses, from very small private, local restaurants, up to large national restaurant brands. Some have had written policies and procedures as long as your arm, some have had none! 
       Since 2005, I have running accredited food safety training for various food businesses, from international hotel chains, national restaurant brands, hotels and care homes, to small private restaurants, church groups and childcare settings. During near enough every food hygiene course I have run, the question comes up; ” if I have to report diarrhoea and vomiting, do I get paid for the time off work?” 
  From my experiences in catering, and training, a lot of illness is not reported because either a) they don’t know they have to, b) didn’t think it was that serious, and even if they did, they would be told that they would have to come in anyway, c) their company has a bonus scheme based on attendance so they don’t want to lose their bonus, or even face the threat of disciplinary action if they have time off work! d) can’t afford to lose the money- they know that if they report that they are ill, they will have to have the next 48 hours off as well, usually unpaid, and they can’t afford it! 
 In my personal view, based on several relatively recent experiences with several businesses, there are various food businesses that have; a) a sickness policy, b) a return to work form / health questionnaire, but very few that pay for time off work. Which, in some ways is fair enough because although this may ensure that people do report diarrhoea and vomiting, people do very quickly learn to play the system and suddenly develop “diarrhoea and vomiting from a dodgy takeaway”, – normally on a saturday night/ sunday lunch/ maybe even the whole bank holiday weekend! , knowing that if they say it is d & v, they will need to have off that day, plus 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped. So three days off, paid, sounds very appealing. 
    This, I have found, is one of the main reasons that food businesses do not have a policy of paying food handlers for time off work. If they were to have a policy of paying for time off work, it could potentially become abused very quickly. 
However, by having a policy of not paying sick pay, this surely penalises the people that do genuinely have diarrhoea and/or vomiting, and do the right thing by reporting it, only to be told they will effectively lose 3 days pay that week. Not really an incentive to report illness! 
    Even if food handlers do report that they are suffering from diarrhoea and/or vomiting, it is not unheard of for them to be told “if you don’t come in today, you will face a disciplinary!” I have, over the years, come across  a brand that has/had a bonus scheme based on attendance. If an employee was absent from work without giving adequate notice ( ie, have diarrhoea and/or vomiting overnight and so phone work the next morning ( as soon as they could), this is classed as unauthorised absence! 
In my jobs as a head chef, kitchen manager and chef trainer, part of my role has been to implement the company’s sickness policy for food handlers. I have found in any kitchen I have run, that even though very few of the businesses have paid for time off, we have been able to reduce the abuse of the sickness procedure through improving the overall culture & morale in the workplace, and monitoring absences.

 Everyone was made aware that they needed to report illness, and were reassured that they would not be penalised in any way. Whilst we didn’t want to discourage people reporting if they were ill, it is normally pretty easy to spot a pattern if someone is abusing the system. For example;

– It is possible, although pretty unlikely that the same person will have diarrhoea and/or vomiting every Saturday night shift that they are scheduled to work, 4 weeks in a row! 
– every bank holiday weekend or sunny day there is, the same person seems to have mysterious illnesses! 
– having diarrhoea / vomiting does not mean that you have a sore throat – it is incredible the amount of phone calls you get from people calling in sick with d & v, yet feel the need to put a “sick voice” on!

   The main thing I found, was over time, by creating a culture where hygiene is discussed informally at kitchen meetings, being made aware of recent cases of food poisoning – and all the costs associated, but also basic things like giving people adequate time off so they don’t feel forced to “throw a sickie” – people did report illness, but we didn’t get the abuse of the system as everyone knew that absence was monitored. Catering hours are antisocial, everyone has things now and again that they want to do, whether it is a weekend away with the missus, or a party on a wednesday night. I have found that if you try and accommodate peoples requests where possible, people are more likely to respect the system and only use the “sick card” when it is genuine. We used to use a diary for any time off requests, and everyone knew that whilst the hours you work in catering can be anti social, we would always try and accommodate them. And the rota was provided in advance to allow everyone time to plan around their work schedule. 

This, along with monitoring absences from work, over time meant that whilst most companies weren’t paying sick pay, it did reduce the amount of abuse the sickness policy got. But, It would be very interesting to work out the cost of paying the relatively few genuine cases of food handlers who should be excluded from food handling. You can have  effective management of your current sickness procedure, to whittle out the abuse, but unless people are not penalised financially for complying with the law, there will always, in my view, be a significant problem with under-reporting of diarrhoea and/or vomiting. 

To put it in context, how much would one alleged food poisoning case cost the business, compared to  the cost of paying for genuine absence from work?

to see the food standards agency guidance on food handlers: fitness to work, please see:
http://www.food.gov.uk/business-industry/guidancenotes/hygguid/foodhandlersguide#.UfWJ_Mu9KSM 


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