A woman sneezing into a tissue.

Image: Shutterstock

51% of food workers said that they went to work when they were sick, according to a recent survey. That’s a lot of sick people working in an industry where the risk of infection is pretty high. But jobs in the food industry are some of the lowest-paying in the country, and many of its employees simply have no choice but to go to work when they’re sick because they can’t risk loss of pay or retribution from management.

Nine out of ten people who participated in the survey said that though they feel responsible for the health and safety of their customers, sometimes they have to go in to work, even when they don’t want to lose pay or disappoint coworkers.

Many workers feared that they would actually be reprimanded or penalized for missing work, even if they were sick. Some workers have come in with pink eye, swine flu, and even hepatitis A and typhoid fever because they could not risk a smaller paycheck.

The problem, of course, isn’t just that workers are coming into work when they’re sick—the problem is much larger than that. One, workers can’t actually afford to miss days, and many low-wage jobs don’t offer any paid sick time at all, so if a worker doesn’t come in, they don’t get paid.

But there is also the problem of America’s work culture at large which values continued hard work over health or happiness. We offer very little family leave, and many jobs offer no time off at all. The ones that do generally only offer about two weeks a year, time that most people will use to visit sick family or loved ones around the country rather than take a vacation from their jobs.

American work culture is rough. We don’t value our workers as much as the work they’re so forced to overproduce. Too many companies lack sick-leave or time-off policies, and if people in the food industry are coming in to work sick for fear of penalization or even bankruptcy. The sick, it would seem, are getting sicker.