Fast Food Workers Face High Risk of Contracting COVID

The UCLA Labor Center study reveals that these employees are also at a higher risk of facing difficult work conditions during the pandemic

Fast food employees in Los Angeles County are at a higher risk of contracting COVID in addition to facing difficult work conditions during the pandemic, a new UCLA Labor Center study reveals.

The report, which was commissioned by the L.A. County Department of Public Health, is the first in the nation to provide an in-depth look at COVID safety compliance from the perspective of fast food workers through personal accounts and testimonies. Roughly 150,000 people make up L.A.’s food sector. A vast majority of those workers are women and people of color who have been enforcing COVID safety protocols.

The report reveals that fast food workers don’t receive workplace protections to which they are legally entitled despite their frontline roles during the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of fast food employees contracted COVID in the last 18 months and less than half were notified by their employers after they had been exposed to the virus.

“More than half of workers felt that employers didn’t address their needs after they spoke up, and some even faced retaliation for doing so,” said Tia Koonse, report author and Legal and Policy Research Manager at the UCLA Labor Center. “COVID-19 safety protocols like paid sick leave reduce the incidence of frontline food service employees working while they are sick, but these measures have been insufficient in this sector.”

She added that only 47 percent of fast food workers received paid sick leave when they or their coworkers contracted the virus.

According to the study, violations of labor standards within fast food restaurants have increased during the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of employees have experienced wage theft, and more than half of them have faced health and safety hazards on the job, resulting in injuries for 43 of workers.

“Fast food workers have showed up every day of the COVID-19 pandemic, risking our lives to keep our stores open and our communities fed,” said Los Angeles McDonald’s worker Angelica Hernandez. “The companies we work for have called us essential, but this report shows they think we’re disposable and that they’ve decided keeping us in unsafe and unsanitary conditions is worth it for higher corporate profits.”

She adds, “But we won’t be silent — my co-workers and I will continue to fight for better working conditions and a voice on the job, so that our families and our communities can feel safe and thrive.”

Saba Waheed, report author and Research Director at the UCLA Labor Center, said the study shows that fast food workers face an array of workplace challenges that extend beyond COVID.

“Half of the fast-food workers we surveyed also experienced verbal abuse, and over a third experienced violence such as threats, racial slurs, and even assault,” Waheed said. “And this is on top of dealing with wage theft, insufficient hours, and other health and safety hazards. The pandemic lifted up how essential this workforce is, and we need to address the deeper structural problems in the sector.”

Given that fast food workers are principal stakeholders, researchers note that their expertise should guide oversight and standards in the fast food industry. The study shows that workers seek greater decision-making power and authority over their work conditions without fear of repercussion.

“Ensuring worker protections is key in making sure our most vulnerable and underrepresented community members are safe and healthy,” L.A. County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. “With another COVID-19 surge beginning in Los Angeles County, attributed to the Omicron variant, this report is of utmost importance. As Supervisor to the First District, I remain fully committed to lifting the voices of those often overlooked – the safety of our communities depends on it.”

The report is based on 417 surveys and 15 interviews with workers, and expands on an industry analysis conducted last year on working conditions in fast food eateries.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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