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Fast-food workers in Los Angeles are facing unsafe conditions at work, and outbreaks among staff at restaurants are threatening the area’s ability to recover from the pandemic, a new report says.
Fast-food workers in LA County are “especially vulnerable” to COVID-19 community transmission, the report by UCLA and UC Berkeley found. They often face unmasked customers and unsafe workplaces, the groups said.
Workers aren’t protected when they speak up, and some are even punished, researchers wrote.
And the demographics of the fast-food industry means that women and minority workers have been hardest hit. The LA County fast-food industry has almost 150,000 restaurant workers, the vast majority of whom are women and workers of color, the report, conducted on behalf of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said.
Staff say they weren’t told when their coworkers were infected
In summer 2020, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) inspected more than 2,000 restaurants and found that a third didn’t follow physical distancing protocols, while 44% didn’t follow face mask regulations.
Fast-food restaurants in the county had at least 59 COVID-19 outbreaks between July and December 2020, affecting as many as 338 workers, the UCLA and UC Berkeley researchers said, citing data from the LACDPH.
In total, around 15% of the county’s documented coronavirus workplace outbreaks were at fast-food restaurants, they said.
But workers often don’t know how many COVID-19 cases have been linked to their workplace “because employers do not disclose when employees test positive,” they wrote.
A McDonald’s in Littlerock, California has been linked to 32 COVID-19 cases, the researchers said, citing complaints to local authorities. Workers said they couldn’t socially distance at the restaurant, and that management tried to hide infections and pressure staff to work while sick.
“Even though there have been many cases of COVID-19 among coworkers at this McDonald’s, I have never been notified that I was in close contact with anyone,” one worker wrote in a complaint.
Workers went on strike multiple times to demand improved safety protocols, but said they faced retaliation and had their hours cut, per the complaints.
McDonald’s operator Andrew Marroquin told Insider the restaurant had “rigorous policies” to protect staff and customers and would work with the LACDPH to comply with COVID-19 guidance.
“We are deeply disappointed in these inaccurate allegations which do not reflect what is actually happening in our restaurant,” Marroquin said.
When a COVID-19 case is confirmed in a restaurant, the company immediately closes it to sanitize the restaurant and notify both local health authorities and other employees, he said. The company supports staff with paid time-off during the entirety of their illness, he added.
Staff also sanitize the restaurants on a nightly basis and sanitize and disinfect commonly-touched areas throughout the day, Marroquin said. Staff are given gloves and masks and the company conducts wellness and temperature checks before each shift, he said.
A worker at another LA fast-food restaurant said six people were sick with COVID-19, but the employer didn’t share this information with staff, according to another complaint cited in the report.
“We had a strike at the store, and instead of listening to our concerns, they terminated us,” the worker said.
In a survey by UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center, 44% of food service workers said at least one of their coworkers had contracted the virus, and 54% said they interacted with 10 or more unmasked people in one shift. More than a third said they weren’t given mandatory training on COVID-19 safety protocols.
Fast-food workers were already vulnerable
“COVID-19 exacerbates the risks already faced by fast-food workers,” the UCLA and UC Berkeley researchers said.
LA County has around 9,000 fast-food establishments with 150,000 workers, making up almost 4% of the county’s total workforce, they said.
Almost 70% of these workers are women, and 90% are people of color, with more than 70% Latinx, the researchers said. People of color have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, research shows.
In addition, fast-food workers are more likely to be living in poverty. Fast-food workers nationally are twice as likely as other workers to fall below the federal poverty line, and fast-food workers in LA County are one and half times more likely to be uninsured than the workforce as a whole, the UCLA and UC Berkeley researchers said.
Fast-food workers are also three times more likely than the national average to get public transport to work and are also more likely to live in larger households, the report said.
“This means that a worksite outbreak raises the risk for community spread in dense working-class areas of Los Angeles,” Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center, said.
Some fast-food companies across the US are offering employees perks if they receive the coronavirus vaccine. These include Darden Restaurants, Shake Shack, Noodles & Company, McDonald’s, and Starbucks.