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E. coli outbreak: Know your sick leave conditions

You are out with colleagues for lunch and order the chopped salad. Three to four days later you become very sick. Are you suffering from these symptoms?

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Intensifying pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

These are the symptoms of E. coli poisoning. A recent outbreak from an Arizonan romaine lettuce farm has made nearly 200 people very sick and led to about five deaths in four different states, including California. What if this happened to you?

Sick leave for workers in California

In California, workers have the right to take paid sick leave without worrying about getting fired or losing their jobs. Legislation introduced in 2015 stipulates that for every 30 hours you work, you accrue one hour of paid sick leave. Your employer may have caps on how much leave you can earn, e.g. up to a day, a few days, or a week. This time could be critical if you are facing a food-borne illness such as E. coli that usually shows symptoms days after infection.

Other reasons for sick leave

Sick leave is not only for your illnesses. It can be used for preventing a health care condition from developing. It can also be used when you need to provide care for a partner, child or a relative who is sick.

Retaliation by employers

Sometimes, an employer will not be pleased that you are taking time off. Your absence might spark a dispute, and your boss might cut back your hours or even fire you. Last year Walmart was accused of punishing workers for taking time off for themselves or to care for sick family members. The company allegedly installed a “points system” where workers would lose points and benefits for taking sick leave.

What to do if you are terminated

If a superior reprimanded you because you sought time off to get better, you might be tempted to quit at once. But, if you stay longer at your workplace, you could gather physical and written evidence that would assist in fighting the injustice through legal action.

Some helpful tips include:

  • Ask for the specific reason of your punishment or firing
  • Ask to see your personnel file or documents
  • Familiarize yourself with employment contracts you signed
  • Gather evidence of promises your employer might have reneged on
  • Ask other employees if they have similar experiences

The E. coli outbreak has been a stark reminder that illness can strike at any time. You are entitled to sick leave and, if your employer punishes you for taking it, you might be entitled to compensation.