Thursday, May 22, 2014

Illinois Food Handlers' Law and Its Effects on Restaurants

Probably the biggest change to ever hit the restaurant business in our state is here.

This past week, I had to start digging into something that I was not looking forward to. Last summer, a law was passed requiring every food service worker in Illinois to pass a state test and receive a certificate. Everyone from my laundry person, to my janitors, and even the hostesses, were going to have to take a course and pass a state exam.

Originally we were told it was a three-hour online course with a cost of around thirty or more dollars. The certificate would be required to work in any aspect of any food service establishment. It was also indicated that the state was expecting each food service worker to pay for their own certification since they will own it, and it will be transferable to other jobs. Oh, and it starts July 1, 2014.

My fears were many:

  • Is this going to inhibit my ability to find staff?
  • Will a dishwasher jump through these hoops just to wash dishes in restaurant?
  • Do they even have a credit card to pay for it?
  • The employer is not responsible for paying for it, but really what is fair here?
  • How do I keep up with staff training and certification in an industry that is infamous for turn-over? I have 60 employees! 

And they continued...

What kind of other book-work horror stories will be involved with keeping up with the state requirements? Just this year, we have had nightmares over new payroll reporting requirements and other service related issues in dealing with our state's taxing bodies.

I know this was passed in a couple other states. Is our state now going to just start passing things just because other states are doing it? Are they digging into what the real effects are on the industry? Was this passed because "everyone wants safe food," but they did not have the forethought to look into how it really affects the net result?

My biggest concern was this:

If this will take so much supervisory time away from real food safety, will it make food safety worse? We already have to have someone here at all times that has a Food Service Manager's Certificate. It is a much longer and involved 15-hour course and exam.

I read every trade magazine and five newspapers daily. I never even heard of this law until our last health inspection a month ago. It was like it was passed in the dead of night. In fact, I renewed my manager's certificate in January, and it was not even mentioned! I started out with such a negative opinion of this I wanted find out how my representatives voted on it. I could not find anything.

The instructions I received were vague at best. This law takes effect July 1st of this year. I started making some calls to local and state officials. The information I got was not very complete, and many questions I asked, they could not answer.

For example, one of my questions was, "how will the health department take a census of my employees that need certification?" Was I going to have to open my payroll for the health department? I was led to two websites where my employees could get their certification. Although both the sites were accredited, they did not seem like something that was remotely worthwhile. Here is an example of one the questions on the test (taken directly from one of the certification websites):

When you are washing a lot of very soiled dishes in a three-compartment sink, you should
A. Get a lot of water on yourself.
B. Drain and fill each compartment with fresh water and detergent or sanitizer several times.
C. Strain out some of the food particles in the sink.
D. Keep adding more detergent or sanitizer to the water.

I was livid and had a letter almost ready to send to my elected representatives. I am just scratching the surface here, and even then I can't get answers to the most basic of questions.. I am sure it will get much more complex as I go on. I was trying to keep an open mind but kept feeling like the whole thing was handled poorly.

Fast forward to this week when I attended the National Restaurant Show.  By chance, I happened to run into a company that does these certifications.  They are approved by our state, and from our conversation, the cost was much less. I could set up a company account where I pay for the course and the test for all of my employees. This company will also produce a list of my employees and their certification status for the health department.

Step one was to actually take the course myself before I put 60 employees through it. It took me one and half hours. It was clear and concise. The website worked flawlessly. (It is done by a private company, not the government.)  On the plus side, it covered things that I don't think we emphasize enough in training... things like allergies, times and temperature. The course did cover some areas that are specific only to certain positions.There were also references to subjects like showering and picking your nose. I am totally serious.

Overall, I must say I was pleasantly surprised. I think if I would have been led to this site before all the kicking and screaming, I might have even done it voluntarily. I might even admit I have been wrong about this. Changes in how we can work, train and test online create new ways to accomplish these types of things.

Don't get me wrong. I am not asking for more regulation. I do have a hard time supporting this as law. It can and should be done in other ways. I am really surprised that insurance companies have not developed and required something like this before.

This week we will start our employees working on their certifications. More to come...

In the meantime, share your thoughts!  Whether you're a food service employee or a restaurant patron, we want to know what you think about this new law!

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