Berkeley restaurants

UC researchers explore the poor conditions faced by workers in the fast food industry

A recent report by UCLA and UC Berkeley researchers analyzed the lack of protection for fast food workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other issues.

The researchers began the study after Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors commissioned a study of working conditions at fast-food outlets in the county, said Kevin Riley, researcher for the ‘study.

The research was also conducted in conjunction with the Service Employees International Union, he added. According to the SEIU website, the SEIU represents a variety of workers, including fast food workers.

Results from surveys posted on social media indicated that fast-food workers had a disproportionately higher infection rate for COVID-19, said Monica Macias, research analyst at the UCLA Labor Center. While the case rate for Los Angeles County residents was around 15% at the time of the research, 25% of fast food workers responding to the survey said they had contracted COVID-19 and 50% said they had known a colleague who had caught the disease.

Fast-food workers often didn’t have mechanisms in place to protect them from COVID-19, Macias said.

For example, more than half of fast food workers surveyed were not informed when exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, Macias said. This means that when a co-worker or co-workers contracted COVID-19, those workers were either not told of the fact or even lied about it, she said.

Workers also reported struggling to get masks and cleaning supplies to their workplaces and were in workplaces that were often too small for adequate social distancing, said Riley, program director of UCLA Occupational Safety and Health, one of the organizations involved in creating the report.

The study also found that workers also faced COVID-19-related harassment from customers, Riley said.

53% of workers surveyed had negative interactions with customers when asked to comply with COVID-19 regulations, Macias said. This included not only verbal abuse, but also physical altercations, she said.

This statistic is independent of the non-pandemic violence that fast food workers have reported facing, Macias added. According to the survey, 37% of respondents said they had experienced harassment, such as insults and theft events at their workplace, she said.

An In-N-Out employee takes a customer’s order. The report also found that more than half of fast food workers surveyed had a negative experience with customers regarding compliance with COVID-19 safety measures. (Kaiya Pomeroy-Tso/Daily Bruin Executive)

When workers tried to change the conditions they faced during the pandemic, many faced retaliation, Macias said. Of the respondents to the questionnaire, 30% said they had gone on strike and 25% of those who had gone on strike said they had been retaliated against for doing so.

Part of the reason fast food workers had a higher infection rate is due to the economic conditions many fast food workers face, Riley said.

Fast-food workers are typically low-wage workers and often don’t have access to reliable health care, Riley said. Additionally, California’s existing sick leave policies expired in September, meaning some workers opted to continue working while sick due to the fact that they would lose a paycheck if they took a leave.

The researchers also determined, through an analysis of government data and previous studies, that fast food workers were on average Latinos, women and young people, said Ken Jacobs, study researcher and president. of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one of the organizations involved. with the creation of the report. On average, fast food workers earned 40% of their family’s income and two-thirds of fast food worker families participated in safety net programs, he said.

Riley also said many fast food workers are young people of color and immigrants and those demographics are statistically more likely to live with others, Riley said. Additionally, fast food workers may also use public transport to get to work, which means they are often surrounded by many different people, he said.

The fast-food restaurant franchise model also presents unique challenges for protecting workers from COVID-19, Riley said.

Although fast food restaurants may have a large corporate name, they are actually run by franchise owners, which means that these establishments do not receive many resources from companies to ensure the safety of their workers, Riley said. While there are franchise owners who may deliberately deny adequate protection, some franchise owners may simply not make enough profit to purchase good personal protective equipment, he said.

The franchise model also leads to an increased prevalence of other workplace issues, including wage theft and health and safety violations, Jacobs said.

The authors of the reports also conducted interviews with fast food workers about their work experiences during the pandemic.

At the press conference for the report, Lizzett Aguilar, a fast-food worker at McDonald’s in Los Angeles, said she was fired when she voiced complaints about COVID-19 violations she suffered in his workplace. She said while fast food companies make billions in profits, fast food workers are forced to hold multiple jobs and participate in government assistance programs just to survive on top of what they live on. currently.

In order to combat these risks, Macias said more companies should enforce COVID-19 safety protocols and ensure that workers who bring COVID-19 safety violations to light are protected from retaliation. . She added that policymakers must also strive to adopt measures that protect workers from pre-existing labor violations such as discrimination and wage theft.

[Related: Students share their experiences of being essential workers in grocery stores]

One of the key potential policies to address labor violations is Assembly Bill 257, which will establish a labor standards board that would include seats for fast-food workers themselves, said Jacobs.

Jacobs said that, if passed, the bill would allow the created council to set labor standards and hold fast-food companies themselves jointly liable for labor violations. The bill would also allow franchisees to sue fast food companies for working conditions that lead to labor violations, he added.

For the general public, Riley said it’s important that customers don’t contribute to the stress fast food workers face in their jobs. He added that those who want to help can also do things like support Assembly Bill 257 and, if interested, get involved in an action related to Fight for $15, which is the movement to return the salary. federal minimum fifteen dollars, and the SEIU.

“Our study showed the long-standing labor issues that are present in the industry,” Macias said. “Furthermore, our study has documented how COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues, so it’s important that these conditions are examined and the sweet stories continue to be told.”