Fast food workers experienced harassment, wage theft during the pandemic

  • Researchers surveyed more than 400 fast food workers in Los Angeles County.
  • Nearly two-thirds said they had been victims of wage theft since the pandemic began.
  • “This is an industry with long-standing problems, and COVID has made it worse,” said UCLA’s Tia Koonse.

When indoor dining closed, drive-thru traffic grew, with Taco Bell alone servicing 30 million more cars in the fall of 2020 compared to the year before. But the fast-food industry workers, most of whom earn no more than the minimum wage, suffered the consequences of working in cramped neighborhoods through what are now at least four stressful waves of COVID-19.

In Los Angeles County, a study commissioned by local public health authorities, conducted by researchers at the UCLA Labor Center and published Tuesday, found that nearly a quarter of the region’s 150,000 fast food employees – 23% – have contracted coronavirus since March 2020, a rate significantly higher than the general population.

About two-thirds of these employees are women, and nine out of 10 are colored, according to census data.

In total, 1.75 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported since the start of the Los Angeles County pandemic, which is home to about 10 million people.

“Fast food workers were really on the front lines during the pandemic, and that means, like soldiers, that they are going to die more,” Tia Koonse, legal and political research leader at the UCLA Labor Center, told Insider.

A January 2021 study analyzing death reports from the California Department of Public Health found a 39% increase in food and farm worker mortality during the pandemic, with the largest increase in risk falling on chefs typically working in confined and poorly ventilated environments .

The risk is exacerbated by a lack of vigilance on the part of employers. According to the UCLA survey, many workers reported that when there was a potentially fatal outbreak at work, their employers lost the ball when it came to warning others, and 42% of respondents said they were only “rarely” informed about a outbreak.

Nearly two-thirds of fast food workers also experienced wage theft. That includes almost half who report that they should buy their own uniforms or equipment. Most who worked overtime also said they were not paid the hour and a half required by law.

The hours they worked were also extremely stressful, and low-wage workers were asked to enforce COVID-19 security measures that some customers and colleagues chose to defy. More than half of fast-food workers said they experienced “negative interactions” with patrons or colleagues over such measures, such as mandatory masking, with 34% saying they had been shouted at.

A majority, expressing concern over COVID-19 to their boss, said they were only partially addressing the issue at best; almost one in five said they themselves were reciprocated.

The results of the survey should make politicians take more responsibility for enforcing COVID-19 measures, Koonse told Insider, as opposed to burdening employees who are already on the verge of burnout. This means more targeted inspections of workplaces – and to contact the workers themselves for feedback.

“This is an industry with long-standing problems,” Koonse said, “and COVID has made it worse.”

The survey was conducted online and included responses from 417 workers at 118 companies across the country’s most populous county.

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