THE BLOG
10/07/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Food Service Workers Without Healthcare: Bon Appetite

This week -- in the midst of the government shut down over the Affordable Care Act -- the New York Times ran a number of graphs and tables that explained where the poor and those lacking health insurance live and work.

Now if you don't like math or if you intend to eat out tonight, you might not want to read any further.

See it turns out that cooks and waiters/waitresses make up 33% of the uninsured. That doesn't mean that 33% of them are uninsured, it means that they make up 33% of the 48 million uninsured in the nation. Cashiers are another 19%. That means that more than half the uninsured in our nation are those people that probably just handled your food.

So now lets draw on that high school math you learned. Remember studying exponential growth and graphing a resulting number based on what we multiplied and added to a beginning number? We used the X and Y axes to represent these points.

If you're head's starting to hurt, stop thinking of numbers and picture a beautiful sky with a sliver of a moon. That moon shape is kind of what this graph will look like. It's starts out slowly moving to the right and then sweeps upward rather quickly.

Anyway, let's say the bottom of the moon, the X-axis -- that's the one that goes side to side -- represents the number of people who already have hepatitis A. The New York State Department of Health says that hepatitis A is the most common form of hepatitis and that "Food workers should never work while they are sick with stomach (gastrointestinal) illnesses." And obviously that's true because hepatitis A is contagious.

But without doing the math, it's hard to imagine what harm a few sickly food workers could do. Lucky for us the University of Arizona School of Pharmacology has numbers on potentially infecting otherwise healthy people.

The moon's up and down side, our Y-axis - that's the number of newly infected people - could expand at a rate of six to 16 times by the fourth time an infected person comes into contact with another human being. So one sick person - after coming in contact with only four people - has potentially infected 16 others.

Here's where the math gets really mind-boggling -- or as math geeks say "exponential" -- let's say, each of those six to 16 people then makes contact with four more folks. And let's say that this all happens in the first half-hour that our X-axis works their shift at some fast-food restaurant or fancy bistro. Now if you loved math and went on to calculus, you'd know that there's a Z-axis, which represents time.

Because there are more statistics for fast food chains than for fancy bistros lets look at what this would mean at a McDonald's. We know that more than a quarter million hamburgers are sold each hour. Now those hamburgers don't cook or package themselves. We also know that McDonalds employs about a million workers each year. And according to a U.S. Senate inquiry, 30,000 of their workers, 3%, are insured. So imagine that some of those workers aren't feeling so well and imagine what our three-dimensional graph will look like by the end of a week.

Now before you throw your hands up in the air and blame all communicable diseases on McDonald's, bear in mind that there are lots of fast food joints, and the average American eats out about 5 times per week with only 19% of those people call themselves fast food junkies.

Besides, it's not like you're helpless. You don't have to quit eating out for the rest of your life. You needn't just surrender to algebraic formulas, even if - thanks to congressional infighting over healthcare reform - you are a victim of politicians who clearly can't understand them.

Perhaps our math-challenged representatives lose track of the numbers. Maybe it's because many of them are millionaires and tax payers kick in more than 180 grand for their salaries and give them not only health insurance but sick pay so they can stay home and not infect each other.

Unlike congresspersons, food workers who lack health insurance probably don't have the luxury of blowing off work just because they don't feel good, especially the ones who rely on tips. If you don't mind Congress stonewalling over healthcare now that you know that more than half the uninsured workers are likely serving up your chow - well - bon appetite!