Fast food workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 in addition to facing difficult work conditions during the pandemic, a new UCLA Labor Center study published Tuesday reveals.
The report provides an in-depth portrait of COVID-19 safety compliance through the lens of fast food workers' accounts and testimonies. There are nearly 150,000 restaurant workers in the fast food sector in Los Angeles, according to the study. A vast majority of those workers are women and people of color who have been on the frontline of enforcing COVID-19 protocols.
The report finds many fast food workers do not receive the workplace protections to which they are legally entitled despite working the frontline roles during the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of fast food workers contracted COVID-19 in the last 18 months, and less than half were notified by their employees after they had been exposed to COVID-19.
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"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," Tia Koonse, report author and Legal and Policy Research Manager at the UCLA Labor Center, said in a statement.
"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. Only 47% of fast-food workers received paid sick leave when they or their coworkers contracted the virus."
Violations of labor standards within fast food restaurants have increased and worsened during the pandemic, according to the study. Almost two-thirds of workers have experienced wage theft, and over half have faced health and safety hazards on the job, amounting to injuries to 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," Los Angeles McDonald's worker Angelica Hernandez said in a statement. "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. 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, author of the report and research director at the UCLA Labor Center, said the study shows fast food workers face an array of workplace challenges that extend beyond COVID-19.
"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 in a statement. "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."
Researchers note, given that fast food workers are principal stakeholders, their expertise should guide oversight and standards in the fast food industry. Findings in the study show that workers seek greater decision-making power and authority over their work conditions without fear of repercussion.
"Fast food workers, many who are people of color, have served on the frontlines throughout the almost two years of this unprecedented pandemic," Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, First District, said in statement. "And while essential, many of these workers have been treated as if they are dispensable. Ensuring worker protections is key in making sure our most vulnerable and underrepresented community members are safe and healthy."
"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 earlier this year on working conditions in fast food restaurants.
The research for the report, "Fast-Food Frontline: COVID-19 and Working Conditions in Los Angeles," was developed in collaboration with the UC Berkeley Labor Center, UCLA Labor Occupational Health and Safety Program and UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program. The study was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.