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March 30, 2012

Advocates Call on Parent Company Darden to Protect Public and Employee Health with Paid Sick Days for Workers

For immediate release

For more information, contact: Joe Dinkin at 978-223-5868 or jdinkin@workingfamilies.org

NEW YORK – Holding signs with slogans like “Capital ILL” and “$49 Steak, No Paid Sick Days for Workers,” a group of Capital Grille employees, supporters and elected officials rallied for paid sick days outside the Capital Grille on East 42nd Street.

“I have a new baby to take care of. It’s scary to know that I could be just one bad flu away from being unable to support my family,” said Alex Pena, who has been a line cook at the Capital Grille since it opened in 2004. “It’s hard enough making ends meet. When I get sick, I usually just come in to work, preparing food for customers. There isn’t any other choice.”

“When workers don’t have the basic protection of paid sick days on the job, it’s not just unhealthy for the workers. It’s bad for all of us,” said Council Member James Sanders. “It’s unhealthy for customers and harmful for the economy. A major corporation like Darden can afford to do the right thing for the workers and the right thing for New York.”

Darden, the parent corporation of the Capital Grille, as well as the Olive Garden and Red Lobster, is one of the nation’s most successful restaurant chains, with $449 million in annual profits last year. Advocates say their policy of denying paid sick days to food service workers is both unhealthy and unfair. The protesters chanted, “Darden, you’re so wealthy, you can afford to keep us healthy.”

“I was sick with a throat infection, and my managers made me come in to work anyway. Every time I tried to call out sick, they acted like I was lying. I just wanted to recover, not risk infecting my customers and my co-workers,” said Kris Viera, who was a server at the Capital Grille for six years.

Alex and Kris are both part of the Dignity at Darden campaign, a nationwide workplace justice campaign launched by Capital Grille workers and the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, and other local affiliates across the country.

More than a million New York workers lack paid sick days, with many concentrated in food service, retail and health care. Nearly 80% of food service workers lack paid sick days, and are forced to choose between their job and their health. When workers come to work sick, advocates say, it threatens not only the health of those workers, but also the public health.

A recent study published by the Journal of Food Protection found that one in eight food service workers reported coming to work sick twice in the last year, and that with symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea. The study also found that workers with paid sick days came to work sick much less often. According to the CDC, as many as half of the nation’s 20 million annual ‘noro-virus’ (stomach flu) infections are directly attributable to ill food workers.

During major health epidemics, the lack of paid sick days exacerbates the crisis. During the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak of 2009, data shows that 8 million Americans came to work while infected with the virus, infecting another 7 million people in the process.

Recently, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez and Council Member Diana Reyna added small business leader support to the paid sick days bill, which currently has 37 co-sponsors in the City Council. The bill has gained momentum following new amendments, crafted in consultation with small business owners, to provide flexibility for businesses and minimize administrative requirements. Under the proposal, workers at businesses with more than five employees would earn paid sick days – nine days for businesses with more than 20 employees, and five days for businesses with five to twenty. Small “mom and pop” businesses, would only need to provide five unpaid, but job-protected, sick days.

Workers at Capital Grille restaurants across the nation have filed a class action lawsuit alleging wage theft and discrimination, and are seeking to change unfair working conditions, including the lack of paid sick days. The Dignity at Darden campaign is the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York’s 11th workplace justice campaign.

While the Capital Grille fails to provide paid sick days, a growing number of New York City small businesses are coming out in support of the proposal.

“Providing paid sick days is the right thing to do for my employees, but it’s also smart for my business and for my community,” said Freddy Castiblanco, owner of Terraza 7 Live Music in Jackson Heights. “If I can do it, I’m sure a giant corporation like Darden can afford to do the right thing for New York, too.” Castiblanco is a leader in Small Business United and a member of Make the Road New York.

Across the country, cities and states have been adopting paid sick days policies to help improve public health and bolster the economic recovery. Last June, Connecticut passed the first statewide paid sick days law. Seattle and Philadelphia City Councils both passed paid sick days laws in the fall, and the Massachusetts state legislature just voted a bill out of the labor committee.

The NYC Paid Sick Days Campaign is a coalition of low-wage workers, women’s rights advocates, healthcare providers, small business owners, labor unions and community organizations who believe New York cannot afford to wait for paid sick days. Paid sick days is a common sense policy for our city and our economy that protects family economic security and public health.