When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, an estimated 4 in 10 hourly workers did not have any paid sick leave — something that often applies to restaurant staff and even non-salaried workers in food and beverage processing or distribution.
The Department of Labor also notes that there is no federal mandate for sick leave in the United States, leaving it to an employer’s discretion whether and how much paid sick time is offered.
Some restaurant chains, like Darden Restaurants, quickly changed their positions in 2020. Initially, employees could take time off without pay if they got sick. In the early days of the pandemic, the company enacted a sick leave policy it says was in the works for a while, in which hourly employees now accrue one paid hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked and would be based on an employee’s 13-week average of hours worked.
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Any current employees were immediately eligible for the benefit, while new employees could start to use their accrued sick time after they’d been with the company for 90 days.
Not all companies decided to offer this kind of policy for their employees. In some states, restaurants were closed for months or drastically reduced staffing while operating only for takeout and delivery meals.
Is it time to reconsider?
Whether your company currently offers paid sick leave or unpaid sick time, this is a great opportunity to consider whether the policy needs to change.
For restaurants, the restrictions are obvious: flexible schedules and working from home aren’t an option. If you have a policy in place to award better shifts to employees who never call in sick or assign demerits for using sick time, it might be time to reconsider. COVID-19, like the flu, is transmitted through person-to-person contact and via airborne particles. Even with mask mandates in place in many states, servers and other staff members are being exposed to these particles every day.
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Managers who have not already adopted a work-from-home policy will want to give that some thought for office-based jobs. This way, employees under the weather can keep working without contaminating the office or infecting their colleagues.
Other options to incorporate
If your company is experiencing high absenteeism for reasons a manager does not believe are legitimate, it might be worth offering some incentives to come to work when healthy while reconsidering any sick leave policy currently in place. Consider offering:
- Rewards for good attendance
- Opportunities for on-the-job stress relief (like regular massages).
- Additional paid days off for wellness checks and other medical appointments as part of their regular annual benefits
- Paid time off to get flu shots — provided they provide documentation confirming they received the vaccination (or host a clinic in-house to make it even easier).
There won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach or solution to paid or unpaid sick time in the food and beverage industry, but there’s no better time than right now to take a look at your company’s policy and see what might need to be changed.