Cooks Don't Call In Sick. But They Might Start

It’s cold and flu season, and everyone’s doing their best to avoid getting the bug — especially the cooks at your favorite restaurant. Of course, no one wants to get sick (and we doubly wash our hands and binge on vitamin C to avoid it), but many people don’t consider that dining at your favorite restaurant might prove a bigger liability than double-dipping salsa at your friend's dinner party.

The sad truth is that, because of the almost militaristic nature of the restaurant industry, many chefs and cooks who work at high-profile L.A. restaurants do have to come into work sick, carrying with them into the kitchen bacterial infections such as strep throat and viruses such as bronchitis and the flu.

"Cooks are supposed to be soldiers. You don't call in sick when you're a soldier," says Aurelie Lelegard, former head sous chef at an award-winning and list-topping restaurant in Los Angeles.

Painstakingly, line cooks sear fish to the perfect crisp and grill rib-eyes to the requested medium-rare while infected with all sorts of cooties you’d rather not know about. When non–kitchen folks hear of this, they are rightly appalled and extremely concerned that food-service workers would knowingly threaten public health, but the problem is complex.

Most cooks, especially in independent restaurants, don’t get sick pay. Even if they did, kitchens are so tightly staffed that often there’s no one who can cover their shift. If a pantry cook can’t get to work by 3 p.m., set up his station and bust out salads on demand, the whole kitchen is thrown off, his kitchen mates have to bear an extra burden and everyone, including the boss, is liable to suspect they’re just faking it.

The old-school kitchen mentality is you show up to work no matter what — even with a fever of 103, even with chills and body aches, even with mucus clogging up your lungs — and let the chef send you home at his discretion, depending on his mood, the amount of covers lined up on the books, the staffing situation and whether or not he believes you and thinks you present a risk to the whole restaurant staff.  

"When you walk into work the next day [after calling in sick], you better have lost a kidney or an arm," says Rose Cafe chef Jason Neroni on kitchen culture in general. "You don't call in sick. You just don't.  It's the underlying culture that's always been in the restaurant industry."

But Neroni believes it may be time for the industry to change. "That old-school brigade mentality doesn't really work anymore. It's a bit of a predicament in this day and age."

A sous chef at a highly acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant admitted to the Weekly that he has come to work when very ill, pushing through a bad flu on one occasion and strep throat on another.

"[I did it because] I didn't want to look like a weakling," he says. "Our kitchen is run extremely tight. The schedule is made to give everyone all their working days and two days off. If someone calls in sick, you are screwing over someone's week. Furthermore, as a sous, if I called in sick, a cook would need to come in to replace me, which means they have a good chance of getting overtime that week by exceeding 40 hours. I don't want to have to explain to the owner at the accounting meeting in front of everyone that the reason our overtime is high is because I was a weakling."

This mentality may be slowly changing, especially for cooks working for more socially conscious chefs, but many cooks have experienced otherwise, especially when working in notoriously intense kitchens. While these chefs and managers may technically release the cook from work, the sick employee is sometimes talked about, deemed weak, and may experience retaliation from other cooks.

The good news is Los Angeles is home to many restaurants owned and operated by younger and more progressive chefs — some barely 30 years old — who realize that, while Escoffier may have been groundbreaking in France in 1903, it's 2015, and we're in California.

At Alma in downtown Los Angeles, taking sick days is not frowned upon at all. It's one of the many progressive practices, such as tipping out the kitchen, which the restaurant employs.

"All our cooks are on salary," says Alma general manager and co-owner Ashleigh Parsons, "so they don't lose any pay when they're sick. Ari [Taymor, chef-owner] and I end up working longer hours for sure, but we think it's worth it."

Taymor agrees. "Cooks try to come in to work sick but we send them home," he says. "We pay them their full hours. It's bad for everyone if cooks come in sick — bad for the cooks, bad for the staff and bad for the food because they can't taste it."

And now, California has cooks' backs. Lacking sick pay soon will be a thing of the past because, effective July 1, 2015, the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 will require all California employers to provide employees with at least three days of paid sick leave per year. There is no exemption for small employers, part-time employees or seasonal and temporary help. Employees accrue one hour of sick pay for every 30 hours worked. Businesses may not retaliate or deny an employee the right to use accrued sick days, discharge or threaten to discharge, demote or suspend or discriminate against an employee for using or attempting to use accrued sick days.

This sounds idyllic, but the question mark hangs as to whether there will be psychological retaliation. Ask any cook who’s sliced open a thumb while shaving candy cane beets on a Mandoline and chooses to go to the clinic instead of finishing out the dinner rush, and many will tell you their kitchen comrades hold grudges. Sometimes it's easier to not rock the boat, and calling in a cook to cover a shift on her day off doesn't always bring harmony to the workplace.

Lelegard, a Paris native who toiled in rigorous French kitchens for five years before coming to Los Angeles, agrees.  "Most people have paid sick time in France — it's the law. That doesn't stop people from coming in to work sick.  Everyone comes in sick.  It's the whole mentality of the kitchen. You don't get to be sick, you don't get to have feelings, you don't get to talk back."  

She says that on many occasions she worked up to 17-hour shifts while extremely ill here in Los Angeles, sometimes with bad fevers, although she took extra care to wash her hands and not breathe on food.  "At the time, I really thought I was doing the right thing," she says. "Now it seems ridiculous. Who does that?" When asked about the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014, she says, "It's still going to take a long time for the mentality to change. That won't happen overnight."

No one said restaurant or kitchen work is easy — it's arduous work, and the small profit margins and small labor budgets make the sick problem a gray area.  Experience varies from restaurant to restaurant, kitchen to kitchen, and owner to owner. The more old-school and militaristic — ahem, androcentric — the kitchen, the more the sick question seems to be an issue.

"I’ve never had to choose between getting better and getting paid, but I know that it is an uncomfortable reality for many people who work in the food industry," says Jessica Koslow, chef-owner of Sqirl in Silver Lake. "I support the new law and believe it makes progress in balancing the competing demands between having enough people on the line for service and protecting the public health."


Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer and pastry chef. Follow her on Twitter and her website. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.


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