October 30, 2012

By Saru Jayaraman

There’s been a lot of talk about the recent announcement by Darden, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company and owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, that it would reduce workers’ hours to avoid having to provide health coverage when the Affordable Care Act goes into effect in 2014.

None of the coverage mentioned the impact on one key stakeholder group: consumers.

Last fall, a server at a North Carolina Olive Garden was forced to work with Hepatitis A because the company neither offers paid sick days nor any kind of health care. Three thousand people had to get tested for Hepatitis A and many ended up winning a consumer class-action lawsuit against the company.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a great step to ensure that people who touch our food are not sick, making sure that we don’t get sick as well. Darden claims the ACA is forcing the company to reduce its employees’ hours to stay afloat.

Moreover, the National Restaurant Association would have you believe the industry is going to collapse if it actually provides workers with genuine health-care access. There are plenty of great employers in America already providing benefits.

For the last three decades, Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Michigan has been providing up to 80 percent of workers’ health care premiums on a comprehensive health care plan. Zingerman’s started as a two-employee deli in 1982. It has grown to an award-winning company with nine businesses that employ 575 workers and realize more than $40 million per year in revenue.

How? Zingerman’s was committed to working benefits into its business model from the start and heard workers’ input in choosing the plan.

Says Zingerman’s founder Paul Saginaw, “What do you get from it? You get a stable workforce. You get a workforce that can stay healthy. You get someone who feels good about the company and is out there trying to help the company be successful. The benefits are enormous. So now you figure out how to make it work.”

Everyone agrees health care costs are high. Saginaw believes a government-funded plan would be best. Without that, Saginaw needs and wants his employees to be healthy, for the sake of his workers and customers, and for his own bottom line. His workers say their customer service is better because they feel secure.

In fact, restaurants in the whole city of San Francisco have had to contribute toward a health care fund for their workers since 2008. Business is booming.

The organization I direct, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, puts out a consumer guide on which restaurants provide benefits like paid sick days and which don’t at www.rocunited.org/dinersguide. We should support restaurants that do and let others know they shouldn’t cut corners because we put our health in their hands every time we eat out.

Saru Jayaraman is co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in New York.