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Sen. Tillis wasted no time becoming an embarrassment

To the Editor:

It took newly elected Sen. Thom Tillis , R-N.C., merely a month in Washington to make himself North Carolina’s reigning national embarrassment, succeeding Rep. Mark “Shutdown” Meadows, R-Cashiers, and John “Casanova” Edwards. People elsewhere are asking how we elected a U.S. senator who doesn’t believe the government should make restaurant workers wash their hands before work or after using the toilet.

The simple explanation is that too many people didn’t care enough to vote; those who did seemed to know what a throwback Sen. Tillis is and most must have approved.

The surprise is not that he’s babbling like a disciple of the nihilist author Ayn Rand, but that he chose so offensive an example to make his point. Sen. Tillis isn’t saying that cooks or servers shouldn’t wash their hands, but simply that it isn’t the government’s job to make them do it. The public deserves only to know whether their employers require it.

His ideology is the law of the jungle. It used to prevail nationwide until Upton Sinclair and other crusaders began writing about such things as spoiled meat disguised with chemicals and littered with rat feces. To return to such unfettered free enterprise is the not-so-secret ambition of the big shots in every sector of the economy and their stooges in the Congress and the legislatures.

In Sen. Tillis’s dream world, restaurants are required only to tell their customers whether employees must wash their hands. To a bemused audience, Sen. Tillis remarked that the market — meaning the patrons — would “take care” of those establishments that didn’t.

Of course, every place would claim that it did. But so what?

To say, as some do, that Sen. Tillis proposes to replace one regulation with another misses the point. As a Bloomberg Politics essay put it, “he’d rather make things easier for businesses than safe for consumers.”

Requiring a restaurant to say only whether it orders its workers to wash their hands isn’t the same as holding it responsible — as the law does — for seeing that it’s done and done well.

North Carolina’s hand-washing rules are fairly detailed and explicit, and properly so. The water needs to be warm, hands and arms should be scrubbed with an approved product for at least 20 seconds, there have to be clean towels or a dryer, and there must be a separate sink so that the one where food is prepared won’t be used for post-toilet sanitation.

In Tillisland, none of that would matter.

Overall, there are 204 pages in our state’s Food Code. If you think that’s too many, you have not suffered such miseries as E. Coli, shigella, or salmonella. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are 48 million cases of food-borne diseases in the U.S. every year. That’s one for every six of us. At least 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

During a salmonella outbreak two years ago that sickened 100 people in Fayetteville — yes, right here in North Carolina — inspectors identified multiple possible rule violations at the restaurant in question. They included improper water temperature and a lack of hand-washing supplies. The report also noted that seven employees had violated the code by working when they were ill.

Granted, the employees shouldn’t have worked. But without paid sick leave, it was likely a matter of breaking either the law or their leases.

For public safety, the law should demand paid sick leave for food service and health care workers, so many of whom live precariously from one pay check to the next. But we’re not likely to get something so obviously necessary from a General Assembly of Sen. Tillis clones. With a committee chair’s gavel now in her hands, Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnsville, is promising to attack what she calls “onerous regulatory overreach.”

Tom Tillis and Michelle Presnell: King and Queen of the jungle.  

Martin A. Dyckman


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