It doesn’t seem like the Jimmy John’s sandwich chain can escape negative publicity this week. Once again, its raw sprouts have been linked to a foodborne illness outbreak (despite switching from alfalfa to clover sprouts after a Salmonella outbreak a year ago), sickening 12 people in five states with E. coli this time. On top of that, two franchise owners went to trial on Tuesday and Wednesday before the National Labor Relations Board for firing six Jimmy John’s workers who publicized company policies that allegedly force employees to work while sick – putting public health at risk.
The Minnesota Daily reports:
On Tuesday, multiple former employees and one current employee testified that they often saw sick coworkers making food at the restaurant. The witnesses also provided anecdotal evidence of being forced to work while sick themselves.
Mike Wilkow, who briefly worked at the Dinkytown Jimmy John’s in 2007, testified that a manager refused to let him go home after he vomited during a delivery.
Unfortunately, this is an industry-wide problem. In one study, 63 percent of restaurant workers reported handling food on the job while sick, despite the risk posed to customers.
To gain the option of calling in sick, as well as other improved working conditions, Jimmy John’s employees hoped to gain collective bargaining rights by forming a union – which would be the first of its kind in the U.S. fast food industry. Workers in ten of the chain’s outlets in Minneapolis voted on the issue in October 2010. Union supporters lost by a close margin, but the NLRB nullified the election due to the company’s unfair labor practices and retaliation against union supporters (i.e. threatening a wage freeze) leading up to the vote.
In March 2011, as reported from the trial, six employees were fired after they put up 3000 posters around Minneapolis in a campaign for paid sick days. The franchise owners, Mike and Rob Mulligan, claimed that no one has ever become sick from eating one of their sandwiches. That’s not true, according to Industrial Workers of the World, the union seeking to represent Jimmy John’s workers. From the group’s press release:
This claim was revealed as an outright lie when the union released Department of Public Health reports which showed two outbreaks of foodborne illness at the franchise in the last five years, both due to sick employees.
FIC continues to witness the inevitable link between working conditions, including the ability for individuals to speak up without reprisal, and food safety. Jimmy John’s has enough on its plate with risky sprouts sickening its customers … why add sick employees on the clock with no voice at all to the list of safety problems?
FIC has worked closely with food worker unions, including Teamsters and the United Food & Commercial Workers, whose members attest to the protection they have under union contracts (comparable to whistleblower protections) that enable them to stop a food safety threat in its tracks without worrying about losing their job. Anti-union efforts against these workers are essentially moves against food safety.
The NLRB decision is not expected for several months. Let’s hope the board holds Jimmy John’s accountable for its retaliatory practices and reinstates the terminated truth-tellers, who were not only making efforts to better their work environment but also to protect public health.
Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.