Chipotle Finds Out the Hard Way Why Paid Sick Days Matter for Workers

interior of chipotle restaurant in sunset vine, calif.
Photo by Jamie Kripke for Chipotle
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Oh no, Chipotle. Not again.

Earlier this month, Chipotle was hit with another foodborne illness outbreak. And it turns out a sole sick employee was responsible.

A norovirus contamination that affected more than 100 customers at a Sterling, Virginia, location was due to a single employee coming into work with sickness, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells said in a conference call with investors, CNBC reported Tuesday.

It’s just another recent setback for the beleaguered burrito chain, whose stock has fallen 8% since Tuesday.

So after the fallout from the E. coli outbreak two years ago and fanfare about changes to restaurant food-safety policies following the incidents, how does something like this happen?

It’s a stark example of the problems with sick leave allowance and adherence in the U.S.

Chipotle Blames Local Management for Norovirus Outbreak

Although Chipotle does have a paid sick-leave policy for employees, the Sterling store was apparently not enforcing it.

“We conducted a thorough investigation, and it revealed that our leadership there didn’t strictly adhere to our company protocols,” Ells said during the investor call, according to CNBC.

And the practice may have been occurring at other locations throughout the U.S.

“My boss has told me that I have no option but to come in tomorrow, and it’s been heavily implied that my job will be in jeopardy if I [sic] don’t come in,” wrote Missouri-based Reddit user uglydarby in a post in the Chipotle subreddit a month ago.

The user wasn’t fired, but the absence was “frowned upon,” CNBC reports.

Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold told CNBC that the firm has added daily wellness screenings to its restaurant protocols.

“If any employees report symptoms of illness, [they] are excused from work until they are feeling better,” Arnold said.

Why a Paid Sick-Day Policy Is Important for Workers

Sick leave is an important benefit, especially for low-wage workers, for whom a single unpaid sick day can cost an entire month of medication, vegetables or car insurance.

Despite its advantages for staff and customers, some companies are still resistant to offer it as a benefit.

In 2011, Jimmy John’s fired six workers for making a meme calling attention to the fact that the company doesn’t offer sick leave and may be putting customers at risk. The news resurfaced after a judge recently ruled the company was justified in dismissing the employees.

Jimmy John’s certainly isn’t the only firm denying these perks to employees. In fact, about 50 million U.S. workers don’t have access to paid sick days, and because of that, 1.5 million go to work sick every week, according to a 2016 New York Times article.

With nearly half of all U.S. workers lacking some form of paid sick leave, maybe it’s time to make like other industrialized nations and create a federal mandate, which the U.S. currently lacks.

And for real, Chipotle employees already have it hard enough with jokers like the guy who asked for staff to individually pack all of his ingredients. They deserve a day off — especially if they’re sick.

Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder.