New York City Workers Protest Darden Restaurants For Paid Sick Days

This lunch hour, New York City's midtown Capital Grille was filled with more than hungry diners: nearly 60 restaurant workers and public advocates lined up outside the restaurant with posters and chants demanding that the restaurant's parent company offer employees paid sick days.

Armed with signs like "$49 steak, no sick days?" and "Darden Makes Us Sick," workers chanted (with a microphone to help them be heard) to get people's attention. The protest was to not only call attention to Darden Restaurants (which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden, among others) but to also gain support for a bill in the New York City Council.

To the protesters there, workers not being given paid sick days is an issue of equality. Said Dylan Easterday, a canvassing activist living in Harlem, workers shouldn't have to choose between being sick and being paid.

"In a city with so much wealth, it should be a given that every worker can take a sick day," he said. "Everyone has a right to that."

Kristin Viera, a grad student who has worked in restaurants for 15 years and worked at Capital Grille for six (up until last summer), said she often came to work sick — throwing up, coughing, sneezing — and was actually congratulated for "pushing through" her illness at work. She often faced the dilemma of whether to call in sick and lose a significant amount of money or come to work anyway. 

"If I called in sick on a double shift, a 12- or 13-hour day, I'd lose one third of my income for the week," she said. "I really didn't want to come in on those days, but felt like I had to."

Viera was like the 1 million-plus New Yorkers who lack paid sick days, with many in the food service industry. Nearly 80 percent of food workers don't have paid sick days. The main problem, health advocates say, is that their sickness quickly spreads. As many as half the nation's stomach flu infections (aka the norovirus) are directly linked back to sick food workers, says the CDC. And a recent study in the Journal of Food Protection found that one in eight food services workers came into work sick twice in the last year — even when they were vomiting or had diarrhea.

Darden Restaurants, the world's largest full-service restaurant group, brings in more than $7 billion per year. The corporation (which, somewhat ironically, was named number 99 on Fortune's " 100 Best Companies to Work For" list) should be leading the way in offering paid sick days, said Donna Dolan, the head of the NYC Paid Sick Days Campaign.

"If Darden changes its policies, it would be set an example to other restaurants," she said.

Councilman James Sanders addressed the crowd and said he was dismayed by the rich's refusal to give paid sick days. 

"It's a problem when the rich, with the big waistlines, tell us to tighten our belts while they loosen theirs," he said.

The protest comes while support for a paid sick days bill gains momentum with the New York City Council. Led by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Council Member Diana Reyna, the bill has recently been amended to add more flexibility for smaller businesses. If the bill were passed, businesses with more than 20 employees would be required to give nine paid sick days; businesses with five to 19 employees would be required to give five paid sick days. Smaller "mom and pop" businesses would have to provide five unpaid, job-protected, sick days.

Seattle and Philadelphia city councils passed paid sick day laws in the fall, and Connecticut passed a statewide law last June. Most of the opposition from the bill, said Joe Dinkin of the Working Family Party, is that people fear the economic impact on small businesses. He said in places like San Francisco, where a similar law is in effect, employment rates for the city and food service sectors grew.

If the bill were passed, Dolan says, about 60 percent of New York City's restaurants would be exempt from changes. Now that the bill has protected small business owners, the bill has gained speed; there are now 37 co-sponsors on the bill, which would give legislators a supermajority should there be a veto.

Other restaurant groups, like the Union Square Hospitality Group, Dolan says, offer paid sick days and are "doing the right thing."

"They know that if they do give paid sick days, they have a more committed, loyal work force," she said. "When workers aren't concerned about losing their jobs because they're sick, they'll do better."

The issue is much larger than just food restaurant workers, says Dolan; the bill extends to low-wage workers, child care providers, and home healthcare providers who are denied sick days. In one hearing, a woman testified that her employer, a bank in Brooklyn, fired her after she requested a sick day to take care of her hospitalized child.

"While we're shining the spotlight on restaurants today, this is an issue that extends to most low-wage workers," she said.

The protest was organized by the Working Families Party, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (who also organized the Dignity at Darden campaign), and the NYC Paid Sick Days Campaign.