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Study Shows That LA’s Fast Food Workers Run a Higher Risk of Contracting COVID-19

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, fast food workers also experienced labor violations

Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

Last week, UCLA published a study that examined fast food restaurant workers in Los Angeles, showing how fast food employees often experience challenging work conditions and ultimately run a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to labor violations.

LA’s fast food workers number approximately 150,000, and are mostly women and minorities. These employees are also in charge of enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols, while working within close proximity to each other, especially cooks, who have the highest COVID-19 mortality rate among restaurant workers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, work conditions have placed enormous strain on this workforce. UCLA’s Fast-Food Frontline: COVID-19 and Working Conditions in Los Angeles study includes these highlights:

  • Nearly 25 percent of fast-food workers contracted COVID-19 in the last eighteen months, while less than 50 percent were notified by their employer after exposure. Less than half were provided with paid sick leave if they or a co-worker contracted the virus.
  • During the pandemic, almost two-thirds of workers experienced wage theft.
  • Concerning wage theft, 45 percent of fast food workers bought a uniform or equipment without being reimbursed, 12 percent received paychecks late, and 23 percent reported interrupted meal breaks while 13 percent were denied meal or rest breaks. For those who worked overtime hours, 55 percent were not paid time-and-a-half, which is required by federal and state law.
  • Over 50 percent of workers experienced health and safety hazards on the job, resulting in 43 percent being injured on the job, from hot oil burns, to cuts and wounds after lifting and/or carrying items while at work.
  • Restaurant workers are required by the city and state to wear PPE/personal protective equipment, but half of surveyed workers said the number of employer-provided masks or gloves was insufficient or infrequent. Almost 40 percent purchased their own masks or gloves, while more than 10 percent needed to buy their own supplies, but could not afford it.
  • After Los Angeles County restaurants required customers to wear face coverings for entry, the study noted that most did not. Over 50 percent of employees experienced hostility when interacting with restaurant customers or co-workers over safety protocols, including being assaulted, threatened, or yelled at.

The UCLA study was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. In October 2020, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to investigate health and safety conditions for fast food workers in Los Angeles County, after a Boyle Heights McDonald’s alleged that management did not comply with basic COVID-19 protocols and retaliated against workers who complained.

The study made recommendations to resolve these issues with fast food restaurant workers from enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols, providing fast food workers with protection from retaliation and abuse, as well as improving labor and health safety practices. LA County supervisor Hilda Solis commented on the study in an emailed statement. “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.”