Working when ill: Darden’s CEO grilled at shareholders meeting

The Orlando shareholder’s meeting of Darden Restaurants turned confrontational Tuesday when several workers and activists brought complaints directly to chief executive officer Clarence Otis.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that former and current employees attended the gathering with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group that has sued Darden’s Capital Grille over allegations it underpaid and discriminated against workers. Darden has said the suit is baseless.

The complaints, which included lack of paid sick time and changes in compensation, came during a question and answer session after Otis touted Darden as a great place to work. Darden, he said, has “an extraordinary record when it comes to employees and employee engagement.”

John Cronan, an organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Centers, said he was a former Capital Grille waiter often waited on customers while ill. “I couldn’t afford to take a day off even if I was sick,” he said.

Otis told him, “As a former worker, you know that we have very strict and aggressive rules to encourage people not to come to work when they’re ill, so I’m glad you’re a former employee and not a current employee.”

The company says people who call in sick can swap shifts with others.

The complaints are timely, because activists in Orange County have been trying to get a measure on the ballot requiring businesses with 15 or more workers to provide paid sick time. Darden is among companies opposing it.

In its report released Tuesday, ROC focused heavily on sick time. The group blamed a hepatitis scare last year at a North Carolina Olive Garden on a lack of paid sick time. Hundreds of people who had dined there ended up getting vaccinated against hepatitis A after an employee was diagnosed with the disease. A class action lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of those people. Darden said the lawsuit was dropped after it offered to compensate those who had to get innoculated.

Darden said the employee was diagnosed with hepatitis during a routine doctor’s visit, notified the company and did not come into work after that for more than a month, and Darden continued to pay her.

There were no reports of any customers getting sick.