Great Britain

California fast-food workers rally behind labor bill with major protests

Fast-food workers are uniting across California in a series of major protests for better working conditions, and to drum up support for a bill that would give them more power to push back against abuses and labor violations.

Organizers and workers kicked off a week of demonstrations in San Diego on Thursday, and will continue north with stops in Los Angeles, the Central Valley, and the Bay Area. The actions will culminate in Sacramento next week, in time for a hearing on the new bill.

The protests are taking place against the backdrop of a pandemic that has exacerbated longstanding labor issues in the fast-food industry.

One of the workers joining in the demonstrations is Marisol Aguilar. Two days after Christmas, Aguilar, a kitchen worker at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles county, woke up with chills, headaches, nausea and dizziness. She had been working in close contact with her fellow employees just the day before, and her schedule overlapped with others who had already gotten 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 a close contact with anyone,” she said in a statement filed with a complaint to the Los Angeles county public health department. “I work in the kitchen and the kitchen is small so we cannot maintain physical distance.”

She is one of hundreds of fast-food workers in in Los Angeles who have have contracted Covid – including dozens of cases allegedly linked to the outbreak at her restaurant. She claims that her co-workers were never notified after positive test results and the store wasn’t closed for deep cleaning.

Health and safety is just one of several problems workers are hoping will be addressed by the legislation, known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards (Fast) Recovery Act – a landmark piece of legislation that, if it passes, would create a statewide fast-food sector council to advocate on behalf of workers. The council would set new standards specific to the fast-food industry, and would also require corporations to be responsible for their franchises.

“What we are fighting for is to have a safe workplace. We hope that legislators support us in the passage of this bill,” said Angelica Hernandez, a 46-year old McDonald’s worker who has led strikes at her location in Los Angeles. She drove to San Diego on Thursday to join the launch of demonstrations, and said the energy at the protest gave her hope. She says fast-food workers have risked their lives during the pandemic, and hopes legislators and the public will be on their side.

Fast-food workers have long struggled against labor issues including harassment, retaliation, wage theft and impacts to their health and wellbeing, according to a report from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley, which also notes that the majority of employees are workers of color, and women. In Los Angeles county, where the research was focused, 90% of fast-food workers are workers of color, and close to 70% are women.

The average fast-food worker in Los Angeles county earns less than $26,000 a year, and roughly two-thirds of the county’s 150,000 workers and their families are enrolled in social safety net programs, which costs taxpayers $1.2bn a year, according to the researchers. Fast-food workers are also twice as likely to fall below the federal poverty line and, in California, they struggle to afford expensive housing costs. Half of workers spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities.

The Covid crisis has only exacerbated the issues. In Los Angeles, one of the cities hit hardest by the pandemic, thousands of restaurant inspections by the county’s public health department over the summer of 2020 found widespread noncompliance with Covid protocols. Close to half were not enforcing the use of face masks, and a third did not practice physical distancing. Meanwhile, there have been 59 Covid outbreaks at fast-food restaurants in LA county – infecting 338 workers – in just a six-month period between July and December.

“These workers are the most likely to contract and transmit Covid-19 to communities the least able to contain it,” the report reads. “They face a disproportionately greater risk of Covid-19 workplace transmission, a particularly grave concern given that fast-food workers are also more likely to live in crowded households, a third of which include people older than 55.”

McDonald’s has taken steps to address some workplace issues, including worker allegations of sexual harassment, by introducing new global standards that prioritise protections against harassment, discrimination and retaliation prevention, workplace violence prevention, restaurant employee feedback and health and safety.

But advocates of California’s bill argue regulation is needed to ensure corporations comply with their promises. “The fast-food industry is marked by low pay and health and safety issues that really came to fore in the context of Covid,” said Ken Jacobs, the chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center.

Part of the problem is many fast-food businesses operate a franchise model, which helps shield big corporations from responsibility and liability. It also makes it harder for workers to organize en masse, or collect on the company when labor violations do occur.

“Creating minimum health and safety standards and a fast-food council provides a way to address these industry-specific issues and improve conditions for the fast-food workforce in an industry that, because of the way it is structured is unlikely to do so outside of government regulation,” Jacobs said.

“Overall, I would say any effect on fast-food workers would be very great,” he said, “and any effect on consumers would be very small.”

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