NEW STUDY: Rapid COVID-19 Spread in CA Linked to Unsafe Working Conditions at Fast-food Restaurants

Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA study finds evidence for rapid spread of COVID-19 through fast-food restaurants
Study also suggests widespread lack of compliance with basic public health guidelines at fast-food establishments

Contact: Matt Lopez, [email protected], 805-377-2950

CALIFORNIA — A new study released Monday by Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA) finds that fast-food workplace transmission of COVID-19 has likely been a significant, ongoing contributor to the spread of the disease throughout California during the last year of the pandemic, particularly among the workers of color who make up the vast majority of the state’s fast-food workforce. To read the full report, click here.

The study, which analyzed information collected from public health complaints made by 69 workers from fast-food establishments throughout California, shows that 89% of these workplaces were non-compliant with 5 or more of 16 defined elements of public health guidance for preventing workplace transmission of COVID-19.

The report also conservatively estimates an “attack rate” of 8.9% for COVID’s spread through fast-food workplaces, which the report notes is likely an under-estimate given the large number of unreported cases of COVID-19. In 24 of the establishments, workers documented outbreaks of two or more cases within a 21-day period, suggesting a minimum average secondary infection risk of 17%.

“Workers in chain fast-food restaurants represent a class with particular vulnerabilities to workplace COVID-19 transmission,” the report reads. “Low levels of economic and job security, high frequencies of wage and other labor violations, and limited control over work tasks and schedules all practically limit the power of workers to ensure their own safety. A franchise business structure, in which the responsibility for compliance falls to individual franchisees, limits corporate liability, reducing the likelihood of cohesive, effective policies for worker protection, as well as the resources for implementing them.”

Additional findings of the study include:

  • In 91% of fast-food establishments analyzed, employers did not ensure that physical distance was maintained.
  • In 86% of fast-food establishments analyzed, employers did not notify or quarantine close contacts when a worker was diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • In 71% of fast-food establishments analyzed, employers did not ensure that workers who showed clear COVID-19 symptoms were excluded from the workplace.
  • In 54% of fast-food establishments analyzed, employers did not provide sick and quarantine pay per regulations.

The PSR Los Angeles study comes on the heels of further research underscoring the risks California fast-food workers face on the job. Earlier this year, researchers from UC San Francisco estimated excess mortality among Californians 18–65 years of age by occupational sector and occupation, finding that excess mortality was highest for food/agriculture workers and even higher for Latinx workers in food/agriculture who experienced a 59% increase in mortality. Another similar study from June 2020 by a number of Bay Area authors, including from UC Berkeley, found that risk factors for infection in San Francisco included being Latino and engaging in front-line service work.

Cooks, Cashiers Mobilize for Statewide Legislation to Empower, Protect Fast-Food Workers

Fast-food workers with the Fight for $15 and a Union, along with a broad coalition of racial and economic justice advocates, launched a statewide week of action last week calling on state lawmakers to pass AB 257, the FAST Recovery Act, landmark legislation that would give workers the power to help set industry-wide health and safety standards and hold corporations accountable for keeping workers safe.

Beginning with a rally in San Diego and culminating in a car caravan from Oakland to Sacramento, the “Road to Recovery: Workers Mobilizing for Power” week of action leads up to the first hearing for AB 257 and underscores the urgent need for the legislation to protect and empower fast-food workers. Even before the pandemic, fast-food cooks and cashiers endured years of workplace violations and abuses including wage theft, sexual harassment, discrimination, and poor health and safety standards.

After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic issues across the fast-food industry threaten California’s ability to mount a just and equitable recovery. AB 257 would address those long standing issues by:

  • Giving Workers a Seat at the Table. The bill would create a statewide Fast-Food Sector Council, which would include worker, government and industry representatives, to set minimum health, safety and employment standards across the California fast food industry.
  • Holding Large Fast-food Corporations Accountable. Corporate fast-food giants like McDonald’s will be required to ensure all their restaurants and franchisees have the resources they need to operate safely and in compliance with the law.

AB 257 will receive its first hearing in the Assembly Labor Committee on Thursday, April 22, followed by another hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on April 27.


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