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Fifteen minutes before Victoria Bruton’s lunch shift at a busy Philadelphia dining joint, she began to feel dizzy and hot. “I had gone to my boss and asked if I could leave because I wasn’t feeling well,” Bruton, now 41, remembers of her first case of what she assumed to be the flu. “They asked that I finish the shift. And frankly, I couldn’t afford not to.” The sole source of income for her two daughters, Bruton powered through the shift—and spent the next two days confined to a sickbed.
Like most of the country, Philadelphia doesn’t require restaurants to pay sick leave for its food handlers, though long-time food workers like Bruton, advocacy organizations, and lawmakers are currently fighting for a law to do so in Pennsylvania. Councilmen in Portland, Oregon are also currently debating a similar initiative. But these two proposals are the exception rather than the norm: According to a study from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, 79 percent of food workers in the United States don’t have paid sick leave or don’t know if they do. And it’s not just flu that sick servers can spread—a study out this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the food industry’s labor practices may be contributing to some of the nation’s most common foodborne illness outbreaks, and moreso than previously thought.