Hundreds of McDonald’s workers plan Wednesday strike over COVID-19 protections

Hundreds of McDonald’s workers plan Wednesday strike over COVID-19 protections

Brent Schrotenboer
USA TODAY

Published 3: 56 PM EDT May 19, 2020

Hundreds of McDonald’s workers in 20 cities plan to strike Wednesday on the day before the company’s annual shareholders meeting — part of an effort to pressure the fast-food chain into improving what they say are inadequate protections for employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Labor organizers say there have been scores of McDonald’s workers with COVID-19 in at least 17 states. They also cite a survey of more than 800 McDonald’s workers from March 31 to April 6 in which 42% reported being told not to wear masks and gloves by management.  The survey also said 46% came to work feeling sick because they were afraid they would be disciplined or penalized.

The strike is supported by the Service Employees International Union and is being organized by the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage labor campaign.

“This is about choices,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said. “McDonald’s can do the right thing and protect its workers. It is choosing not to.”

The company disputes the allegations by these workers, saying they are not representative of the 850,000 McDonald’s employees nationwide. McDonald’s also called it a strategically timed “publicity stunt” by labor organizers.

Each side planned to take out full-page advertisements in national newspapers this week on the subject of safety at McDonald’s restaurants. One ad is scheduled to appear Wednesday in USA TODAY in the form of an open letter to McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski. It was submitted by several public health professionals, including David Michaels, former chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Reports by McDonald’s crew members and media outlets reveal a pattern of severe shortcomings by McDonald’s under your leadership to fully comply with the highest standards for safety and hygiene at a time when such failures can have deadly consequences for workers, their families, their communities, and your customers,” the letter states.

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“We are aware of scores of cases of COVID-19 positive workers in at least 16 states across the country. Time and time again, McDonald’s has failed to swiftly close and disinfect stores following confirmed reports of COVID-19 among employees. To make matters worse, your restaurants have also failed to promptly inform workers of exposure to the virus and to provide pay during quarantine,” the letter continues.

McDonald’s sent its own message Tuesday with an ad in The New York Times. It is planning to open dining rooms at restaurants where permitted and says its 14,000 locally owned restaurants are “putting safety first.” The ad also says that it has more than 50 new procedures that go “well beyond masks and gloves” to keep everyone safe.

McDonald’s vice president for U.S. communications, David Tovar, said restaurants now have an ample amount of cleaning supplies, gloves and masks, and he suggested the employee survey from April was outdated at best. He also said labor actions at McDonald’s so far only have involved a small fraction of the workforce.

Henry of the SEIU said these are widespread issues.

“I don’t think there would be strikes happening on 20 cities all on the same day (Wednesday) if this was not a widely experienced condition of all workers in fast-food restaurants,” she said.

A group of strikers also plans to hold a Zoom meeting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday to discuss their ongoing efforts to hold McDonald’s accountable during the pandemic.

Since March, employees in some cities have conducted walkouts to protest McDonald’s response to COVID-19. Wednesday’s action is billed by organizers as the first coordinated nationwide strike.  

“The way work is set up right now at McDonald’s, the workers are at increased risk for transmission of COVID-19, and there are reported cases of COVID-19 among workers, which is not surprising considering the conditions that have been reported to me,” said Michaels, an epidemiologist.

Michaels said he was approached by some of the workers and has agreed to advise them as an unpaid expert.

“Are their demands reasonable?” Michaels asked. “I think they are.”

The strikers want McDonald’s to halt dividends and instead use that money for increased safety and economic protections for workers, including “pandemic pay of $15X2,” plus paid sick leave and sufficient protective gear for workers. They also want immediate store closures when workers become infected to allow for a deep cleaning, contact tracing and self-quarantine for two weeks at full pay.

The workers cite a number of examples in various cities about the lack of protective gear or inadequate response to sickness among workers. In San Francisco, workers filed a complaint alleging managers told them not to worry about a lack of masks in the store, suggesting they use coffee filters instead.

Tovar of McDonald’s said the company has strict social distancing guidelines and takes safety seriously for customers and employees. He said there have been less than 10 restaurants out of the 14,000 in the country “that have had any type of activity like this that’s been orchestrated by the SEIU.”

“That’s not to say there aren’t real issues and concerns that are out there, as we’re all dealing with this terrible pandemic,” he said. “But the feedback that we get from thousands of employees does not match (what the SEIU says).”

The worker experience can vary by location. In Los Angeles, longtime McDonald’s cook Bartolome Perez makes $14.25 an hour and says he’s seen his hours reduced after speaking up previously about the working conditions. He plans to strike Wednesday.

“They only care for their profits,” he said. “They don’t care for our lives. They show it to us again and again.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]

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