Fast-food workers face a number of hazards in the pandemic, beyond increased incidents of COVID-19 infection, a study found. Photo credit: labor.ucla.edu/

Fast-food workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 in addition to facing difficult pandemic-era work conditions, according to a study published this week.

The report provides an in-depth portrait of COVID-19 safety compliance through the lens of worker accounts and testimonies.

There are nearly 150,000 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.

In 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 42,000 people in the San Diego-Carlsbad region worked at fast-food counters or as cooks in the eateries.

The report, by the UCLA Labor Center, found that many fast-food workers do not receive the workplace protections to which they are legally entitled despite working in frontline roles during the pandemic.

Nearly a quarter of the workers have contracted COVID-19 in the last 18 months, and less than half were notified by their employers after they had been exposed.

“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, one of the report’s authors, 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.”

For instance, according to Koonse, the labor center’s legal and policy research manager, less than half of fast-food workers received paid sick leave when they or their coworkers contracted the virus.

In addition, violations of labor standards within the establishments 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.

That led to injuries for 43% of workers, the authors said.

A Los Angeles-area McDonald’s employee, Angelica Hernandez said the report shows that she and her fellow workers face “unsafe and unsanitary conditions” that companies maintain while seeking “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, an author of the report and research director at the labor center, said the study shows fast food workers face an array of workplace challenges beyond COVID-19, including verbal abuse, threats, racial slurs, and even assault.

“The pandemic lifted up how essential this workforce is, and we need to address the deeper structural problems in the sector,” Waheed said in the statement.

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

The report is based on 417 surveys and 15 interviews with workers, expanding 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.

– City News Service

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