Food Workers’ Reasons for Working When Sick

EHS-Net Recommends

Restaurant managers and food safety programs should work to better understand why sick workers work and prevent them from doing so. Efforts should focus on

  • Involving kitchen managers in decisions about whether a sick worker should work.
  • Addressing reasons workers give for working when they are sick.
  • Understanding what factors affect workers’ decisions about working when sick.
Photo of a cook preparing a plate of food.

Why This Study Was Done

Sick food workers have been linked with past foodborne illness outbreaks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that food workers not work when sick with symptoms of foodborne illness. We don’t know how often food workers follow this advice. If we learn more about what food workers do when they are sick, we can make recommendations to stop them from working when sick. Lowering the number of workers who work when they are sick can reduce the number of foodborne illness outbreaks.

What the Study Described

This study described

  • What happened the last time the food workers in our study worked sick.
  • Why they worked when they were sick.
  • What affects their decisions to work when sick.

What the Study Found

EHS-Net found that many food workers work when they are sick. They work when sick for many reasons, including personal, financial, and social reasons.

What happened when workers worked sick

More than half (60%) of the workers could remember a time that they worked when sick.

  • Some of these workers took steps to keep others from getting sick.
    • One in five did not handle food.
    • About one in three washed their hands more often.
  • Almost all (89%) said it was their decision (not the manager’s) to work when sick.
    • Four in ten said their manager did not know what their symptoms were.

Why workers worked when sick

The most common reasons workers gave for working when sick were

  • The restaurant did not offer paid sick leave or have a sick leave policy.
  • The restaurant was shorthanded and no one else could take their shift.
  • They did not feel very sick or thought they would not pass their illness to anyone else.
  • Their sense of duty or strong work ethic.

How certain factors affect workers’ decisions to work when sick

  • Severity of symptoms, type of symptoms, and possibility of making other people sick [seven in ten workers].
  • Dedication to their job and not wanting to leave coworkers short staffed [six in ten workers].
  • Not getting paid [half of the workers].
  • Fear of losing their job [one in four workers].
What Is EHS-Net?

This study was conducted by the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net). EHS-Net is a federally funded collaboration of federal, state, and local environmental health specialists and epidemiologists working to better understand the environmental causes of foodborne illness.

Want More Information?

Food Worker Experiences With and Beliefs about Working While Ill pdf icon[PDF – 156 KB] (scientific article this plain language summary is based on)

Food Workers’ Reasons for Working When Sick pdf icon[PDF – 543 KB] (fact sheet version of this page)

Factors Linked with Food Workers Working When Sick (plain language summary of another sick worker article)

Food Workers Working When They Are Sick (plain language summary of another sick worker article)

Manager Practices about Workers Working When They Are Sick (plain language summary of another sick worker article)

Ill Food Worker Study (study information)

More EHS-Net publications by Study Topic

More Food Safety Study Findings in Plain Language

Page last reviewed: June 18, 2019