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For Fast-Food Workers, the Pandemic Made a Bad Situation Worse. Now They’re Fighting Back.

Fast-food restaurants’ close working quarters and large number of customers made them a vector for spreading the COVID-19 virus.

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As essential workers, employees at fast-food restaurants did not have the luxury of working from home during the pandemic. They continued to show up for work despite poor pay and dangerous conditions. Lizzet Aguilar worked at a Los Angeles-area McDonald’s when the pandemic hit and recalled that “we didn’t have social distancing, the store manager told us we had to re-use our gloves, we didn’t have masks.” When she got home from her overnight shifts, Aguilar would shower and sleep on the floor to avoid exposing her husband and son to the virus.

After learning that two employees at her McDonald’s location tested positive for the virus, Aguilar and three of her coworkers went on a four day-strike. They demanded the company provide adequate personal protective equipment, require customers to wear masks while in the drive-thru, and enforce social distancing measures. Shortly after the strike, Aguilar and her colleagues were fired.

The firing did not stop their fight for better wages and working conditions: “What they didn’t realize is that instead of clipping my wings, after losing my job I continued speaking up and raising my voice because I wasn’t going to let what happened to me happen to my fellow employees,” Aguilar told More Perfect Union. The workers filed complaints with the California Labor Commissioner, Cal/OSHA, and the LA County Department of Health claiming that the McDonald’s franchisee failed to comply with basic COVID-19 safety precautions and retaliated against them for reporting unsafe working conditions. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered an investigation into Aguilar’s McDonald’s location and the Labor Commissioner’s Office fined the franchisee more than $125,000 for unlawful retaliation.

Now Aguilar — who now works at a different McDonald’s location — and her coworkers, along with the Fight for $15, are taking the fight for decent wages and working conditions beyond their McDonald’s franchise. They are advocating for $15 and a union for all McDonald’s workers, and in this year’s California legislative session, for the Fast-Food Accountability and Standards (FAST) Recovery Act, a landmark piece of legislation that proposed a new model of standard-setting for the fast-food industry.

For Fast-Food Workers, the Pandemic Made a Bad Situation Worse

Low wages and poor benefits were endemic to the fast-food industry long before the pandemic. Fast-food is one of the lowest paying sectors in California; the state’s 500,000 fast-foodworkers earn an average of $30,000 annually. Just 13 percent of fast-food workers receive health benefits through their employer. The public subsidizes the industry’s lousy wages and benefits: a recent report found that two-thirds of fast-food workers in California were enrolled in public safety net programs, at an annual cost of $4 billion.

Fast-food workers are also subject to high levels of workplace injury and harassment. A 2015 survey found that 87 percent of fast-food workers were injured on the job in the previous year, with burns and cuts being the most common injuries. Sexual harassment is rampant in the sector; nearly every major chain has faced allegations of sexual harassment in their stores and in 2018 hundreds of McDonald’s workers walked off the job to protest pervasive sexual harassment.

The pandemic made a bad situation worse. Fast-food restaurants’ close working quarters and large number of customers made them a vector for spreading the COVID-19 virus. And as Aguilar and her coworkers learned first-hand, fast-food outlets largely struggled to safeguard the health and safety of front-line workers. In Los Angeles alone there were 59 documented COVID-19 outbreaks in fast-food restaurants between July and December 2020. During that period, three McDonald’s locations in East Los Angeles had outbreaks of more than ten employees each.
While McDonald’s workers relied on public benefits to make ends meet, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski took home more than $10.8 million in 2020. And fast-food franchises received millions of dollars in forgivable federal loans through the Paycheck Protection Program–including more than $51 million that went to 110 outlets facing COVID-19 safety complaints, according to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Changing How the Industry Operates

The fast-food industry’s structure makes it challenging to improve wages and working conditions in the sector. Most fast-food locations are owned by franchisees, not the big chains themselves. The franchise agreements give the major companies control over many aspects of the business, including prices and suppliers, leaving franchisees to focus on cutting labor costs as much as possible. If a franchise owner were to improve wages or working conditions, they might not be able to compete in the market or make a profit. Because the big fast-food chains do not directly employ the workers at their franchisee locations, they are not liable for labor violations.

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced the FAST Recovery Act in 2021 in response to stories like Aguilar’s. The Act would make franchisors liable for labor violations in their franchisees and shield whistleblowers from retaliation. It would also establish a “Fast-Food Sector Council” charged with setting standards on wages, benefits, safety, and other working conditions throughout California. The Council — which would include representatives of government agencies, fast-food chains, franchisees, workers, and advocates for fast-food employees — would update the standards every three years and could establish temporary standards in the event of an emergency. “It’s a great opportunity—being face to face with politicians and being able to talk to them ourselves, us workers,” said Aguilar.

Unsurprisingly, the bill faced strong opposition from the business lobby, notably the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Restaurant Association, and the International Franchise Association.

An industry council like this would improve working conditions for hundreds of thousands of fast-food workers in California and prevent a race to the bottom that causes taxpayers to subsidize poverty-level jobs. It could also serve as a model for other states looking to lift the floor for fast-food workers. While the bill fell just 3 votes short this week in the California state assembly, Aguilar and the other organizers will keep up the fight for legislation to have a seat at the table in how their industry operates. As Aguilar said: “This bill is something we’ve been waiting for, eagerly waiting for with our hands to our hearts.”

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