Andy Shallal, owner of regional restaurant chain Busboys and Poets, doesn't quite understand why people would oppose legislation mandating sick-leave for Maryland workers.
"Obviously they've never had their food sneezed on, or at least they don't think so," said Shallal. "But they've had their food sneezed on. If they've eaten out, one day, they've had their food sneezed on."
It was a blunt statement for a restaurateur to make in front of a crowd in his own restaurant, and when he said it one could hear the room fall silent for half a second while the words sank in. The tension quickly gave way to laughter, and above the din someone shouted "not here, though!"
If the food at Busboys and Poets is indeed less prone to being sneezed on than at your average restaurant, it's in-part because all of its employees are able to take paid sick time to recover from illnesses, argued Shallal. His restaurant empire is one of a small number within the industry which provide such benefits to all of its employees.
Shallal, along with Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Dist. 20), Del. Johnny Olszewski (D-Dist. 6) and Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunity Task Force, a Baltimore non-profit which helps low wage workers move into higher wage jobs through advocacy, program development and public outreach, in a small gathering yesterday evening at Busboys and Poet's in Hyattsville, asked voters to push their state representatives to support mandatory sick-leave legislation.
The argument in favor of the sick day legislation was framed as both an economic issue and a public health issue. Ill low-wage workers, the sick day legislation advocates said, wouldn't be forced to bring their germs into public in order to maintain the monthly finances.
"A lot of people who don't get sick-leave work in the service industry," said Perkins-Cohen. "People who are preparing your food might be ill, and if they don't have sick time, they can't stay home when they're sick."
Advocates also pointed to news of this winter's severe flu season to underscore the public health risk posed by forcing workers to choose between a paycheck and bedrest.
More than 700,000 Maryland workers do not earn paid sick-leave, according to numbers provided by Job Opportunities Task Force. Many of those workers earn their bread in the service industries.
Mizeur and Olszewski said they plan on introducing a sick day bill during the current Maryland legislative session. The bill is currently going through final revisions before being submitted. The bill is expected to have clear the finance and economic matters committees before it could be voted on by the general assembly.
Washington, D.C. is the only jurisdiction bordering Maryland which has a mandatory sick-leave law, though it excludes restaurant employees.
The proposal has already drawn criticism from some business groups in Maryland. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, The Maryland Retailer's Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business all oppose the sick-leave legislation, according to The Gazette.
For those who predict that mandatory sick-leave would eat into a businesses' bottom line and make shift planning difficult, Shallal said those fears were unfounded.
"We spend less than 1 percent of our payroll on sick-leave," said Shallal. "We still have chefs in the kitchen."