Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. This week, we're bringing you a special Behind Closed Ovens about all the times food workers are forced to work while sick. As always, these are real comments from real readers.
After last week's post about Elizabeth Taft, Texas Subway employee forced to continue working while violently ill then fired for taking an ambulance to the hospital, I received tons of comments from people who've worked in the food industry who've been forced to work sick. In some cases it was because they had bills to pay, but in the vast majority (as you'll see below), it's the same situation as Taft's: managers told them to come in and work or be fired, giving basically no shits about the public health dangers involved.
I'm in Ohio, worked in a grocery store bakery. The written policy was "don't come in if you are sick", the actual policy was more like "Unless you are dead, you better be here." So I worked with flu, bronchitis, migraines and laryngitis — and was still raked over the coals for taking too many sick days.
It should be criminal for public health reasons, if not humanitarian ones, but this is the US where illness is a bad choice made by the patient.
This is why people with chronic illness find it nearly impossible to hold down jobs. I once had a very similar situation when working in retail (I was in the middle of a flare and ended up fainting in the women's room and being taken to the ER) and while my boss didn't fire me, he did tell me if I called out again I would likely be replaced.
But nothing beats the one job fired me because I told them I would need to take a few days (like 3) off to start chemotherapy.
My favorite people are the customers who can see that you are sick, and give you shade for working and possibly getting them sick. As if a lot of service industry workers have much of a choice in the matter. You either get in trouble for phoning in sick, or you are pressured to come in no matter how sick you are, or you can't afford to give up the shift you have because it's 8 hours of money that you really need.
There is no way to win. Somehow you are always in the wrong.
I was talking to my husband and his bff about this, since they both worked at McDonald's as teenagers. If you're sick, even contagiously sick, you still have to come in or you can be fired for missing your shift. Then if you cough, which you might do if you're sick, you get written up for improper food safety. So yeah, it's a no-win.
Almost the exact thing happened to me. I was working at a cheap sushi restaurant and got food poisoning in the middle of my shift. I began vomiting over and over, about twice an hour. I was literally running in and out of the bathroom between taking orders because I couldn't stop, I was so ill. What did my manager say when I asked if I could go home? He said no, we were short staffed because he'd already let a girl go home because she'd stayed up too late the night before doing cocaine. It took 4 hours from the point I started vomiting for him to finally let me leave, and he demanded I apologize to all my coworkers for "making them work harder". Btw I didn't even make it the 6 block walk home without vomiting in the gutter. I didn't get fired right away, but I mysteriously stopped getting shifts about two weeks later despite being the oldest and most experienced server (at 20 years old, btw). Fuck the way restaurant workers are treated in this country.
I worked at Islands when I was 17, and one day I came in with strep throat. I didn't know I was sick because whenever I get a fever, I go on autopilot and I don't realize I'm sick. However, my sister visited me at work and informed me that I was working with my eyes half-closed. Anyway, I worked through the day, and then the next day, when I couldn't swallow, I called my manager, in horrible pain, crying, and told her I was too sick to come in. She could barely understand me because of the strep, but she said I would have to call around to get my shift covered, or come in. Nobody would cover my shift (it was my unofficial job to cover everyone else's shift—raise your hand if you're always this person, too!), so I worked that day. The day after that, I woke up again, crying, but this time I had pink eye in both eyes. I called my manager and she said if I did't get a doctor's note to excuse me from work, I'd be fired. So I went to the doctor who told me that strep, if untreated, turns into pink eye, and if you continue to ignore it, it would turn into scarlet fever.
Luckily, the doctor's note got me out of the day of work, but my boss certainly didn't care that I would have been walking around with strep and two oozing eyes, serving burgers and drinks.
I was once incredibly ill at my place of employment (I was 19 at the time). I'd been vomiting off and on and only keeping down yellow Powerade. I requested to go home and was not allowed. At one point I had to run to the bathroom to use the toilet (both ends were going at this point). While I was on the toilet, I felt the urge to vomit. Not being able to hold it down, I sprayed yellow Powerade all over the bathroom stall through my fingers. At that point, I just said "deuces" and left. Turns out I had a severe case of mono and had to be hospitalized for a week. The next day my mom tried to call them and let them know that I wouldn't be in since I was hospitalized. They told her I needed to call myself. She told them to get fucked.
Some employers are absolute shit.
This reminds me of the time I worked a 10 am Sunday morning brunch shift, after a 4-2am shift Saturday evening (which I did every weekend), at the place I worked the entire time while getting my undergrad degree. I was so sick that I was laying curled up on the prep table in the back kitchen with my coworkers jacket covering me, obviously with a miserable case of food poisoning. My boss wouldn't let me leave early, even though I only had 2 tables during my 5 hour shift. Of course this is the same jerk who wouldn't let me leave when the underwire of my bra broke because he thought it was funny that I had to work without a bra (there was a kohls 2min down the road that I could have run to to get a new one if he would have let me go on break), and said in front of me to the GM 'have you hired any pretty girls yet? Ones that don't have tattoos??' Ugh. So glad I'm through that part of my life!! Restaurant work (can be really fun sometimes) is generally awful!
Got a job working at Safeway once. I got a really bad case of food poisoning (along with the rest of my family) and called in the night before to let my manager know that I wouldn't be in the next day. Manager's response? "Well, you don't sound sick to me. Be here tomorrow at 9am". I contemplated showing up and deliberately puking on the manager's shoes, but in the end I decided that it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the staff and just stayed home.
Not surprised. I came down with the flu once when I was working at a cafe and they told me I couldn't leave. When a customer complained that I was clearly ill, my manager just moved me to the kitchen so the customers couldn't see me infecting them all.
My first job I was told to keep working after just having thrown up in a sink.
It's a joke that food service workers are forbidden by law to work when they're sick. I've had several food service jobs and any time I tried to call in sick the manager told me to take some benadryl or pepto and suck it up or don't bother coming in when I recover. Especially on days when they anticipate a lot of customers.
One of my kids was sick and fainted at a retail job. Her coworkers stepped over her. When she came to she was expected to work the rest of her shift.
Because all they care about are their metrics and numbers. I have a medical disorder and have to get IV infusions every few weeks and I had to go out of my way to learn how to self infuse because my job wouldn't let me have ANY time off to get them done. Then, I'd rush over to the clinic during my 30 minute lunch, they'd stick a 2" needle in my chest (portacath) and I'd run back to work the rest of my shift and then go home and infuse my medication.
Of course, this is the same place that fired me when I was in the hospital for 9 days because I nearly died of multiple organ failure.
I don't often get sick but when I do it is a brutal soul destroying affair. I had to work through half a shift, most of which was spent sitting in a chair near the changing room, because my manager didn't want me to leave. Predatory business is awful.
And those same managers do not get the irony when they force you to sign something saying you will not come to work when you are sick and contagious. I had a few managers like that, and they got so mad one year when we refused to sign the thing from corporate. "They don't want me to work when I'm vomiting, but you will fire me if I don't come in? YOU CAN'T DO IT BOTH WAYS!"
I waitressed once in a loud bar/club and completely lost my voice. We share tables there and it was the other waitresses first night, but I basically had her talk to all the tables and I would just drop things off. When customers did ask me things I basically had to mime or just try to speak if they could even hear me at all.
So this one time there was a raw sewage spill (my store was in a mall; that plumbing backed up like ALL THE TIME), and was forced to stay with a supervisor whilst HAZMAT cleaned it up. Because, you know, a cashier totally is important in that situation.
I showed up to work the next day with pinkeye in both damn eyes, got sent home, and got written up for skipping my next two shifts.
Because retail is the American Dream, and don't let any commie lesbian pinko nazi socialist Kenyan tell you otherwise.
I worked at a restaurant near the college campus and was supposed to work a double on game day. Doubles at this place could be 15 hours without a break. Huge two story restaurant. Not easy work.
Anyway, my skin is basically grey and I feel like asshole so I tell me manager at the beginning of the day oh god please let me go I'm dying. "We really need you Alexa, tough it out for us."
I went to the bathroom, put on a ton of makeup, and tried not to cough at my tables, working a LONG, exhausting shift.
I called out the next day. And the next four days. Because whatever had been coming on, due to the exertion and lack of food turned into full blown pneumonia.
Subway is awful to work for. My boyfriend worked there for a while and then last winter, which was quoted as being the worst in 100 years in MI, it snowed so hard we couldn't get the door open because snow was piled so high, and it was still snowing. His manager had been at work since before it started snowing but she only lived a couple of miles away anyway (we lived about half an hour away).. he called in to give 5 hours notice that he couldn't get there. She told him she'd call him back.. called him 5 minutes before his shift started and told him if he wasn't there to not bother coming in because he'd be fired. Subway is the kind of corporation where it's fine to fire someone for not being a robot/having magic powers.
This reminds me of the time I was working as a server during college. I got food poisoning from a bad sandwich that my restaurant made me. It was so bad I had to go to the ER. I was out for a week and when I called in to check what my shifts would be, they proceeded to tell me that I didn't have any and I should call in next week to check in. Later I found out that when I was at the ER I told the nurse where I worked and how I probably got sick. Being so dehydrated and zonked out I don't really remember telling any of this. One thing lead to another and the Health Inspectors paid a visit, while I was out, and voila I'm the one without the job. Zoom a couple of years later when I tried to file for Unemployment and was rejected due to the fact this place stated that I was the one who quit. Since it was a lot of "he said, she said" there wasn't anything I could to do to contest it. So much UGH and totally feel for this woman and all retail/food employees.
I once had some kind of flu or virus or whatever. I couldn't keep anything down (or in) for like 3 days. I had gone to the doctor and had a note. She had said, "it's clearly a virus, it's going around, go to the ER if you need to, come back if you're not better in 3 days."
So I call out. This was the only time I EVER called out at this restaurant - and I worked there for 5 years. (Twice a week, so it's easy to not call out...) The manager tries to threaten me about needing a doctor's note dated for today or earlier - it was a Saturday, I guess he figured I wouldn't call his bluff and go to the ER, and I couldn't get to a regular doctor over the weekend.
"Oh, I already have one, I went yesterday afternoon."
"You're lying," he says smugly. "If you went to the doctor, they would have put you on antibiotics."
"Um. Not for a virus, because antibiotics are for bacterial infections. And I think you overestimate their effectiveness. Antibiotics, when they are prescribed correctly, aren't going to cure anything in 15 hours."
This reminds me of one of my roommates in undergrad who worked at the dining hall - She somehow got pink eye and tried to call out sick after going to the doctor, since, you know, pink eye is hella contagious. They said she couldn't and that they would just keep her in the back on dishwashing duties so she would be "out of sight"...like, as long as the other students didn't see her inflamed, seeping eye as they were being served their fucking turkey tetrazzini all would be well. Anyway, there was a subsequent MAJOR breakout of pink eye. Enough so that the President of the university had to send out a campus-wide email about it outlining tips/directions about what to do to prevent the spread and how to get treatment. Fucking ridiculous.
I can't tell you how many times I've worked with people who should NOT be at work but they can't afford to take a day off, or another call-out would get them a write up. Where I work they don't want a doctor's note unless you're sick for 3 days. Other than that it's an unexcused absence, regardless.
I've seen people work with food between running to the bathroom to puke or have diarrhea. I've seen people cough directly into food when they were sick. I've seen people who could barely stand up. And this is in a place where we have to wear gloves. Most places don't even require that.
It sucks to feel like shit and have to count back and figure out if you're out of the woods between your last absence or if you could get a write up for just being sick too much in a crappy winter where there's a lot of shit going around.
My best friend since middle school had been working for Dominos pizza for three years up until a month ago. She had been extremely ill for about 6+ months prior, and never had time to see a doctor since they worked her full time (honestly I think they overworked her) as a manager to the drivers while often delivering food herself since employees didn't show up for work, randomly quit, or were fired.
So this past winter while being sick she drove in ice and snow since most of the employees didn't show. Believe it or not, people order tons of pizza when the weather is terrible, not thinking about the hazards the driver faces. They never shut down the store, so she would deliver pizzas until 11pm on icy roads to rich motherfuckers who didn't tip. (Note: the $1.50 delivery fee tacked on your bill doesn't go to the drivers, so tip them. They also don't get extra money to pay for wear and tear on own their vehicles which are used to deliver. Can't tell you how many times she almost lost her job, because she couldn't fix her car).
They constantly denied her days off to go to the doctor, even scheduling over the appointments she told them she made. She was too afraid to tell them no, because she would be fired. But she finally did put her foot down and begged for four hours off one day to go to a doctor's appointment. She had to do this a couple more times since they sent her to specialists, and they allowed it, because she was practically disabled with spinal pain, stomach cramps, and more.
She found out she has a mass starting in her abdomen and growing into her lungs. It's hard to see the other organs, but they're pressing into her spine. 95% of her reproductive organs seem to be consumed by it. She went to her manager, told him the news. He said she could take medical leave since her surgury was scheduled this coming week. It was shocking since medical leave in a minimum wage job is a rare fucking bird. A few days later, they called and fired her.
Now she's basically wondering if she'll be able to keep her insurance (not through work insurance. Private and due to cost). She has a long road ahead health wise. I don't fucking understand how they do this to people. She was already afraid of dying on the table, and now she's afraid of dying, because she can't pay up front costs for treatment.
I got very ill when I was 16, and ended up collapsing while attending the fitting room at a mall store. My manager told me to go to the food court and get a Sprite. Instead, called my parents, who are nurses, luckily they had the day off, and came to pick me up and drive my car home. The manager threatened to fire me then and there, and my parents said that was illegal. Wish I could have fought more, but was too sick to fight.
Back when I was waiting tables, I woke up with a stomach bug one morning and did the proper thing and called in for my closing shift so they'd have time to find a sub. "But you weren't sick last night...." was the response I got from my GM. I couldn't find anyone to sub for me and was told that unless I came in with a doctor's note, which would have necessitated a saturday trip to the emergency room with the sham they were calling health insurance, so I would have lost my wages along with the ridiculous emergency room bill, I could find a new job. Needless to say, I ended up working and was so disgustingly sick looking, I'm surprised that customers didn't complain. The icing on the cake came when no one would switch shifts with me and I still had to close, which was at 2am. I just stopped taking tables once things died down and hung out under the warming lamps trying to get warm.
I've had a similar thing happen, twice at an ex retail job. The first time I got violent food poisoning, and essentially was at the hospital the night before. I called in the next morning, an hour before my shift (hey I was sick) and told them I left the hospital late and was horribly sick.
"Well, we need you today. I'm not saying you'll get fired, but you won't get anymore hours."
So I got dressed slowly and sobbing the entire way (I was 18), and went to work. Basically I hid in the largest changing room we had and tried to keep myself from puking.
I found out the only way to get off sick (when I really needed it, during a food poisoning) was to say you had pink eye. Holy crap no one wanted you there.
When I was in college and was bartending at a chain restaurant, I can down with strep throat so severe the doctor wanted to hospitalize me. Obviously my manager was totally sympathetic — I believe his response was "If you don't come in don't ever come back." So I didn't and just quit the restaurant biz for good.
I was feeling pretty sick one Saturday and couldn't find anyone to cover my wait shift at a pretty well known restaurant, where I knew it would be a very busy night. I called the manager & he said I had to come in. I did, but was sweating, feeling nauseated, and week throughout the night. I kept putting cool rags on my neck when I was in the kitchen. At some point, I was entering an order on the system in the kitchen next to the manager's office, and I couldn't hold it anymore, so I hurled into a trash can, with the manager watching. He pulled someone from bussing to cover my tables, and shut my section down. It was the end of the night anyway. He handled my cash out & tip out. I walked out of there with a 1/3 of what I would normally make & was there the entire night. It was just a 24 hour bug thankfully, because I didn't have health insurance. I know one of the managers was ill, but I wonder how many customers also got sick.
When I was waitressing eons ago, I was told by the head waitress, and the more experienced ones, that if we ever called in sick, we would be fired. I had the flu, and first called in sick, then came in anyway. I wonder how many people I infected that day, so that the stupid diner could make a few extra bucks in profit.
I once worked super sick through my lunch shift and went to a minute clinic on break for a strep culture. Came back positive, with a dr's note, and my boss sat and watched me call everyone off that evening to cover my shift. No one would so I sat and cried, feeling terrible, sick, and defeated, and shaking from my fever. Finally after watching me crumble he said go home. What a dick.
Same thing happened to me in college. Super sick after the boss made me "test" the water that was clearly pored from the wrong sick by another employee. I ended up having to get my tonsils out because of the infection and was promptly fired because I was so sick that I couldn't stand at the hostess table..when there was no customers in the whole restaurant.
yeah, one of my old jobs i had to work even when i was violently ill. i had to give manicures and pedicures to people covered in sweat and wearing a ventilation/sick mask that was collecting snot and mucus and it was dripping outside my mask and even on the floor. suprising thing, lots of customers don't care if you're that sick and working. just like "um... can't you go faster?"
Our main cook when I worked at Perkins would come in sick (running a fever, pale skin, and sweating kind of sick) because we didn't have sick time. He had a baby girl to feed so what the hell was he suppose to do? I remember serving the food he cooked and just crossing my fingers none of our customers got sick. Our management knew they just didn't care.
I was fired in 1993 for getting into a car accident on my way into work for my scheduled shift. (It was not my fault...I was hit by a drunk driver) As I was knocked unconscious and spent hours in x-rays and getting my two broken bones set...and this was before cell phones, I was unable to call into work to alert them to what had happened until many hours later. They fired me for being a "no-call/no-show". That's what happens when you work in what they call a "Right-to-work" state. Technically...they don't have to give you any reason at all. Sounds more like a No-Right-To-Work state to me!
I once fainted while waiting tables. I woke up in the mangers office, finished my shift and went to the clinic the next day. I had bronchitis. I was contagious. I was told to stay home for a week. I got fired.
This is pretty par for the course for fast food workers. When I was working at KFC, I slipped and fell on some grease and fractured my wrist. It immediately started to swell and was turning purple. I went to my manager holding my wrist and in tears asking permission to go to the doctor. He looked me dead in the eye and said only if I could find someone to finish my shift for me.
This happened to my brother-in-law when he worked at Chick-Fil-A. He said he needed to go to the bathroom, because he was going to throw up. He was told no. So he threw up all over the floor, and they still tried to keep him working.
Reason #58708 that I no longer eat at Chick-Fil-A.
When I was a senior in high school I worked at Ben & Jerrys. I had been there about 2 weeks when I came down with a cold or the flu, I don't remember exactly but I was definitely sick. I called to say I couldn't come in because I was sick but they said, if you don't come in then don't come back at all. So I came in but hardly said anything & tried to stick to cleaning so I wouldn't have to deal with customers or food. Next day I got fired. The 2 adult managers said I had acted too stuck up the previous day. And then they said I needed to bring in my B&J shirts or they would take it out of my paycheck. Being 17 I didn't realize all of this was illegal. To this day I still hate Ben & Jerrys. A bunch of fake hippies.
I work in food service. I am uninsured. I have gone to work while vomiting. I have gone to work with two torn eardrums. I have gone to work after being up all night shitting blood.And I took care to wash my hands like a fiend, wear double gloves the entire time and change them constantly, etc (which I know doesn't make everything entirely safe, I KNOW, I was TRYING). I am typically the only person on my shift, meaning if I call in sick at the last minute, the place either literally doesn't operate for a day—it's an inn—or a groggy co-worker comes in well after my shift is supposed to start and breakfast is an hour late. Which has never happened. Because I don't have sick leave, and no matter how many times other commenters have to chime in just to tell me how gross/irresponsible/horrible I am for it, I have gone to work sick because I couldn't afford the day off. Thankfully I'm not in that financial situation anymore (I can afford to take a day off here or there if needed), but seriously. It's like the words "can't afford" go right in and right back out of their righteous, angry little ears. Yes, I understand that you catch everything. Yes, I understand that I am endangering the elderly. Sorry. I really am. When I was shitting my life out, I really wanted to stay home, believe me, but rent is rent and it had to get paid. Take it up with your state legislator, not me.
I came into my food service job one morning sick as all hell. Puking every few minutes, barely able to stand. Our bathroom was upstairs, and i could barely drag myself up there. I told my sous chef I really needed to go home before I threw up all over the kitchen and/or got someone sick. Seemed reasonable. He told me to pull a trash can up to my station. I've never felt the same about eating in a restaurant since.
I tried to call in sick because I had gone into anaphylactic shock the night before and was still reeling and puffy. My boss actually thought "Anaphylactic Shock" was a nightclub. She fired me later that day.
Not gonna lie one of my best memories is of a girl at my old job begging to go home because of stomach bug of course being told no way once she got a whiff of the tuna she puked on the line and then sat down on the floor and puked violently in a trash can for like 20min. All during the lunch rush, asshole manager had to give out a shit ton of gift cards, send the girl home, and face down the 15/20 lawyers that basically loved her.
insubordination sounds suspiciously like 'performance issues' something I suddenly had less than 4weeks after my boss discovering I was pregnant.... I honestly don't know how these people sleep at night but I know they have the presidential suite reserved in hell....
My husband works in the restaurant industry and worked for 2montbs straight without a day off, so sick he could not function. We skipped my family Christmas dinner so I could take him to the emergency room where we found out he'd been working with walking pneumonia and strep. Because Christmas was literally the only day he'd had off since November. Food service labor policies are beyond fucked up.
I had to go in to work at Chipotle (7am) to try and find someone to cover my shift (at 10am) WHEN I HAD PNEUMONIA - instead of going to the doctor to get meds for pneumonia. I ended up looking at my manager after not finding someone, saying "sorry" and I walked out. I was back less than two hours later with a doctors note saying I couldn't work for 1 week. He shoved me out the door and said "we have to decontaminate everything! Why did you come in this morning?" Well, motherfucker, because of corporate policy stating that I had to cover my shift or work it myself unless I had a doctors note. And seriously? He almost fired me for not finding someone to cover my shift anyway.
I can tell everyone who's using that "forbidden by law to work" thing to make themselves feel better that's it's a CROCK OF SHIT, and sick people are making and serving your food all the time in order to keep their jobs. Keep that in mind next time you pretend food service employees are treated so well. I had a friend work with a raging staph infection because he would have been fired for not coming in, and he handled a lot of cash and beverages. It's not up to the employee to choose the customers over their livelihood, it's up to the managers and owners to make that a reasonable decision.
*Edited to say- I've worked a lot of food service/customer service jobs and I get it- nobody wants paid sick leave for their grunts. Whatever, I don't even expect that. Just don't FUCKING FIRE PEOPLE because they're in the hospital.
When I worked for the Root Bear [in Canada], I had a manager that flat-out refused to accept my sick call and made me come in to work. What was I sick with? Strep throat. I could not even talk, and I had to spend the next 8 hours running a drive-thru.
None of these are isolated incidents; this is a clear trend. This is what happens when employees are forced to work when sick or face losing their job. These are the people who handle your food and your retail products, and they have no choice but to work while ill. If you're looking for someone to blame, it's pretty clear that the companies, managers, and owners who don't give a crap whether they make their customers sick are to blame. If you're going to get mad, I can't see a better place to start than there.
Do you have a crazy restaurant story you'd like to see appear in Behind Closed Ovens? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with "Behind Closed Ovens" in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy).
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