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A majority of working adults say that they still go to work always or most of the time when they have a cold or the flu. That's what a poll by NPR the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has found. And NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports there are some jobs where doing that can have a big impact.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL: At least half of people who work in very public places like hospitals and restaurants report going to work when they have a cold or the flu. They're some of the last people you'd want to do so because they tend to have a lot of contact with people, so they're almost perfect disease spreaders. Kirk Smith oversees food-borne outbreak investigations with the Minnesota Department of Health.
KIRK SMITH: It's one of the biggest food safety problems that there is and we've known about it forever.
BICHELL: But, he says, it's really hard to get people to stop doing it. When it comes to food handling, there's one illness that's particularly concerning, norovirus.
SMITH: It is by far the most common cause of food-borne illness.
BICHELL: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus is responsible for 35 percent of them. That's because there are billions of virus particles per gram in excretions. It only takes about 20 of those to get someone sick. And it can hitchhike from surface to surface. You need a high concentration of bleach to kill it.
SMITH: And so it just takes microscopic contamination of your hands, if you don't do a perfect job washing, to be able to kind of contaminate food with enough of the virus to infect lots and lots of people.
BICHELL: The same virus has plagued restaurant customers across the country. Last winter, 140 people, including much of the Boston College basketball team got sick from eating at a Chipotle in Boston where one person had gone to work sick.
ANTHONY PEEPLES: It's definitely, you know, the norm to go into work sick. That's what I and most of my co-workers usually do.
BICHELL: That's Anthony Peeples. He used to work at an Olive Garden restaurant. Now he's a bartender at a casino in Michigan City, Ind. He says at Olive Garden when he got sick, he was in a bind. He didn't have any paid sick leave.
PEEPLES: I don't think anybody, like, really wants to go out there and get people sick or let alone work when they're miserable, but it's like you have to or else you're not going to be able to, you know, survive that month. You're not going to be able to pay your electricity, your water or your rent, you know.
BICHELL: The Food and Drug Administration has something called the Food Code that says food workers need to stay home 24 hours after their symptoms go away. But not all states have adopted the rule. The CDC has found that 1 in 5 food service workers have reported working while sick with vomiting and diarrhea.
Laura Brown has studied what drives those people to go to work. She's a behavioral scientist with the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health.
LAURA BROWN: Forty percent of workers did say to us that they had worked while sick in the past because they wouldn't get paid if they didn't work. But when we look at the data statistically, that doesn't really seem to be a large driving factor in whether or not people actually work when they're sick.
BICHELL: She and her colleagues interviewed employees at about 500 restaurants in nine different states and then calculated what factors were most strongly linked to people going to work sick. And they found that it's actually not just about the money. A lot of them went to work because they were worried about losing their jobs if they didn't show. And there was another thing.
BROWN: So we found that workers who were concerned about leaving their co-workers short-staffed were more likely to say they had worked while sick.
BICHELL: Likewise, those who worked in places that had backup options like on-call workers to fill in for sick staff, they were less likely to work while sick. So the biggest factor was this.
BROWN: The workers are concerned about their co-workers having to work a man down.
BICHELL: Our poll also found that it isn't always money that drives people to work when they should stay home. Adults in low-paying jobs are more likely to say they go to work ill, but about half of those in high paying jobs are, too. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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