The city ordinance which made paid sick leave available to employees of businesses with more than four full-time equivalent employees specifically cited the need to protect customers and co-workers from contagion, a concern that's become increasingly urgent during this year's fierce flu season.
While there's no data showing how many food service workers are staying home, the Office for Civil Rights hasn't noted an increase in calls from staffers being denied their right to ride out fevers, aches and chills in the comfort of their beds, suggesting employers are complying with the ordinance which took effect on Sept. 1, 2012. What's unclear is whether law-abiding restaurants have had any bearing on the flu's spread.
King County doesn't count confirmed cases of the flu, but the number of emergency room visits related to flu-like symptoms is up for all age groups. The number of influenza deaths is not elevated from past seasons.
Jeff Duchin, King County's Chief of Communicable Disease and Epidemiology, suggests the situation would be much the same absent the ordinance.
"It is unlikely granting sick leave to workers in any industry would alter the course of a community epidemic," he says.
Yet labor advocates have seized upon the national flu epidemic -- which is so severe that some Catholic churches have stopped using a shared Communion cup for wine -- as an example of why policies like Seattle's ordinance are essential.
"People are dying," a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress told the Huffington Post, emphasizing the seriousness of the problem in the food industry. "And they're recognizing it's ridiculous to tell somebody, 'Oh, you have the flu, it's highly contagious, but you should come in anyway.' It's really heartbreaking."
According to the Center for American Progress, 70 percent of women and 67 percent of men in the restaurant industry report cooking, preparing, or serving food while sick.
Although 90 percent of food workers across the country don't receive a single paid sick day, many Seattle restaurants already offered the benefit to their employees. But the city ordinance extended paid sick leave to workers at convenience stores and fast food restaurants, among other venues.
While the public may not be demonstrably safer because Burger King staffers aren't coming to work with the flu, Elliott Bronstein, who serves as the city's point person on the ordinance's technicalities, says the fry cook is better off since the ordinance was enacted.
"In some cases, people do drag themselves to work," Bronstein says. "With the flu, I don't think people can drag themselves to work. The difference is now there's a form of compensation for them."