Fast food employee’s rights

Manager Employment Standards Policy Gerard Clark says the owner has a responsibility to act in good faith when dealing with any employee. Photo: File.

Sometimes, faking smiles for rude customers and coming home covered in grease and oil is the least of a fast food employee’s worries.

While the fast food industry is raking in sales of around $11 billion in New Zealand each year, nobody really knows what happens behind the scenes other than employees.

One Tauranga woman, who does not wish to be named, contacted The Weekend Sun when she was threatened with disciplinary action after she called in sick.

The woman has been working pay check to pay check at a Western Bay of Plenty fast-food restaurant for the last three months. She says she has regularly asked for more shifts to make ends meet, but just gets the bare minimum some weeks.

She was reluctant to take the day off when she started feeling sick, because she wasn’t eligible to receive paid sick leave until she’d been in the role for six months.

“I was feeling really sick not long after I started my shift,” she explains. “I kept vomit burping and swallowing it back down, because I couldn’t afford to leave work.”

She waited to see if the sickness would pass, but it didn’t. Her manager admitted she was not well enough to work, but made her stay for another two hours until a replacement was found.

Later that evening, after she had been sent home, she started feeling a little better. She hoped to sleep off the rest of her sickness and be ready for her 6am start the next day.

“I couldn’t afford to take more time off, because I wouldn’t have enough money to pay the bills and buy groceries, so I was hoping I’d be better in the morning.”

When she woke up, however, she was feeling worse, but was scared to call in sick. She eventually plucked up the courage to call her manager and explained the situation.

“She told me that it was a huge inconvenience. She said she couldn’t find someone to replace me at such short notice and that I would have to come in to work regardless.

“I told her that I had been vomiting, and she said she’d let me off this once, but to expect a phone call that day from the operations manager.”

She admits there’s an agreement that if someone works early shifts and they’re ill, they’re supposed to call in sick before 8pm the night before. “But sickness doesn’t work to a schedule,” she says.

However, in her contract that rule is not stipulated, and instead says employees should try to give at least two hours’ notice.

Manager employment standards policy, Gerard Clark, says the owner has a responsibility to act in good faith when dealing with any employee, as required under the Employment Relations Act 2000.

“The employer has a duty of care to a sick employee, to other employees, and to customers, to ensure they don’t put others at risk by having a sick, potentially infectious employee at work in a role that would worsen their health, or the health and safety of others,” says Gerard.

He says if an employer requires an employee to work when the employee is sick, this could well be a breach of the employer’s health and safety obligations. 

“Employers in the food industry are likely to have additional obligations around sick workers, for food hygiene reasons, and extra care should be taken. 

“All employers need to meet their obligations to their staff in good faith, and this includes making appropriate arrangements when staff fall sick, so that all staff and customers can have a fair, healthy and safe workplace.”