A core premise of Popular Information is that equipping people with information can empower them to create meaningful change. Today, this kind of populist advocacy often occurs online.
Many people are skeptical of this approach. In the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that online activism "makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact." He argued that online expression cannot effectively challenge powerful institutions and "digital protesters" will only bring "more of the same."
But a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, Daniel Schneider, just published a robust study of a key piece of Popular Information's reporting in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs. The study, co-authored by UCSF professor Kristen Harknett, shows Gladwell and the other doubters underestimate the power of online advocacy.
Schneider and Harknett looked at the impact of a March 2020 report in Popular Information about working conditions at Olive Garden. The chain, along with Yard House, Eddie V's, and other restaurant brands, is operated by Darden, which collectively employs about 170,000 hourly restaurant employees in nearly 1,800 locations. Darden is a publicly traded company currently valued at nearly $19 billion. As the pandemic began to take its grip on the United States, Popular Information reported that, except in 11 states where it is required by law, "Darden does not provide any of its restaurant employees with paid sick leave."
Popular Information's report included interviews with several Olive Garden employees. An Olive Garden employee in North Dakota reported that employees are "not allowed to stay home sick" unless they can find someone to cover their shift or produce a doctor's note. But many of the workers lack insurance to see a doctor and one worked for the entire month of December with a persistent cough. A former Olive Garden server in Arizona said they observed co-workers reporting to work sick "all of the time" because if "you couldn't get your shift covered and called in sick, they would typically try to get you to come in anyways, and if you stayed home, you would lose shifts in the future."
Darden had aggressively lobbied against mandatory paid sick leave. The company helped secure the passage of a 2016 law that prevented cities in North Carolina from passing mandatory sick leave legislation.
But when Popular Information’s story was published on March 9, 2020, it spread rapidly on social media. The Twitter mentions of Olive Garden and other Darden brands were flooded with concerned and angry customers.
About 10 hours after Popular Information published, Darden abruptly reversed course and announced that it would expand paid sick leave to all its employees.
This is where the Health Affairs study comes in. It's easy for a company to announce a policy change, but would it actually follow through? Would there be real, practical benefits for workers and customers?
History shows this isn't always the case. For example, "in 2014, after its precarious scheduling practices were featured in a widely read New York Times article, Starbucks pledged change but was then exposed as having done little to resolve the issue."
But the Health Affairs study proves that Popular Information's reporting created real change. The study found "the campaign against Olive Garden was highly effective," dramatically increasing "employee-reported access to paid sick leave." Further, the change in sick leave policy significantly reduced "presentism," the number of employees who came to work sick, at Olive Garden.
"We have shown that online investigatory journalism coupled with social media activity led to substantial changes in corporate practices," the study concludes.
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Inside the Harvard study
Schneider and Harknett run The Shift Project, which surveys tens of thousands of workers from large retail and food service companies. Since 2017, "the survey asked respondents whether they could receive paid sick days at their job." The dataset included "10,306 workers employed at food service firms, including 653 Olive Garden workers."
Prior to March 2020, just 23 percent of Olive Garden workers reported access to paid sick leave, lower than the average at food service employers. But "after Olive Garden’s announcement, this situation changed dramatically." While "workers at comparison firms saw no real change in their access to paid sick leave, the share of Olive Garden workers reporting access increased substantially and significantly from 23 percent in spring 2019 to 66 percent in spring 2020."
The survey controlled for including sex, race/ethnicity, age, tenure at Olive Garden, and numerous other factors.
Prior to the pandemic, The Shift Project found "very high levels of self-reported presenteeism, with approximately 55 percent of workers at Olive Garden reporting that they were sick but went to work anyway at least once in the prior month." Presenteeism among all food service workers declined at the outset of the pandemic, "consistent with a normative shift in the acceptability of presenteeism." But the study "observed significant divergence in presenteeism between Olive Garden workers, whose rate continued to decline, and comparison workers in fall 2020."
Schneider told Popular Information that some employers will put "a paid sick leave policy on the books" as "an inducement at the point of hire." But practically, due to short-staffing and other factors, "workers often face a lot of pressure to work when sick." So, "actually having [the paid sick leave policy] mean something, as it seems to have at Olive Garden, is really something else."
Remarkably, the study found that the impact of Olive Garden's voluntary action was more effective than "legislated expansions of paid sick leave." For example, "Washington State’s law increased paid sick leave access by 28 percentage points for service-sector workers and reduced presenteeism by 8 percentage points." The study found that at Olive Garden "a nearly 50-percentage-point increase in access to paid sick leave and a 15-percentage-point reduction in presenteeism."
In an interview, Schneider told Popular Information that "local and state mandates can be very hard to enforce, given limited staffing at enforcement agencies and weak penalties for non-compliance." Meanwhile, Schneider said, the "pressure that [Popular Information's] story brought to bear on Olive Garden came at a moment of rising public awareness of the lack of [paid sick leave] and of the urgent need for workers, especially food service workers to have that benefit – for their own health and for public health."
Adding a paid sick leave benefit does not appear to have interfered with Darden's ability to deliver value for stockholders. The stock is currently trading at $144.70, up from its pre-pandemic high, achieved on September 13, 2019, of $127.34.
The precarious reality of most food service work
Much of the recent discourse around food service industry work, Schneider says, has focused "on wage increases and labor scarcity." But on "so many other crucial dimensions of job quality, these workers remain profoundly precarious."
While paid sick leave expanded dramatically at Olive Garden, most of the rest of the industry did not follow suit. One reason is that the food service industry "is heavily franchised." (All Olive Garden restaurants, however, are company-owned.) That leaves the decision of what benefits to provide in the hands of "relatively smaller franchisors." This makes systemic change harder. Only 12% of employees at Subway — the nation's largest restaurant franchise — report having access to paid sick leave, according to The Shift Project data.
Further, "workers continue to get little advance notice of their shifts, often work on call, and have their schedules changed at the last minute." Schneider says his research has found "unstable scheduling… undermines workers’ economic security and their health and wellbeing."