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Fast-Food Workers Face Increased Health Risks and Labor Violations During Pandemic

Our newest report finds that fast-food workers in Los Angeles County are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, in addition to facing difficult work conditions that became more acute during the pandemic. The report is the first in the nation to provide an in-depth portrait of COVID-19 safety compliance through the lens of fast-food workers themselves. Fast-food is an integral part of the food sector in Los Angeles, comprising nearly 150,000 restaurant workers, the vast majority of whom are women and workers of color who have been on the frontline of enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols.

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. This study was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

The report finds that despite working frontline roles during the pandemic, many fast-food workers do not receive the workplace protections to which they are legally entitled. Nearly a quarter of fast-food workers contracted COVID-19 in the last eighteen months, and less than half were notified by their employers after they had been exposed to COVID-19. 

“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. Only 47% 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 and worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost two-thirds of workers have experienced wage theft, and well over half have faced health and safety hazards on the job, amounting to 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. 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.”

“Our study shows that fast-food workers face an array of workplace challenges that extend beyond COVID-19,” said Saba Waheed, report author and Research Director at the UCLA Labor Center. “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. 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.” 

Report authors emphasize the urgency of implementing public policy solutions that are tailored to fast-food workers’ needs and strengthen fast-food workers’ voice in their industry. This includes increased enforcement of and compliance with COVID-19 protocols as well as existing labor laws. Given that workers are principal stakeholders, researchers note that their expertise should guide oversight and standards in the fast-food industry. Findings 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,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, First District. “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.”

This 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 restaurants. 

Download the report:


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