L.A. County To Probe Safety Concerns at Fast-Food Restaurants

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Responding to allegations by union leaders that workers at a Boyle Heights McDonald's were fired for raising COVID-19 safety concerns, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to investigate and examine working conditions across the fast-food industry.

Supervisor Hilda Solis authored a motion calling for public health workers to look into complaints by alleged whistleblowers.

“Fast food workers, many who are people of color, have been on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic,'' Solis said. “When the shelves at grocery stores were bare, many people relied on fast-food restaurants like McDonald's for their meals... Ensuring worker protections is key in making sure our most vulnerable and underrepresented community members are safe and healthy.''

Service Employees International Union Local 721 President Bov Schoonover wrote a letter to the board alleging the McDonald's on Marengo Street failed to comply “with even the most basic COVID-19 safety precautions and (retaliated) against employees who raised safety concerns.''

McDonald's did not immediately reply to a request for comment sent late in the day, and no one at the local office responsible for the Marengo location was authorized to speak to the media.

According to the union, fast food restaurants in Los Angeles County serve about 2.5 million customers daily and employ roughly 166,000 workers.

Since June, workers at the Marengo Street McDonald's had filed seven complaints with state or local agencies and waged multiple weeks-long health and safety strikes, according to a statement by SEIU Local 721. They accuse the restaurant of failing to provide workers with masks or to require customers to wear masks, enforce social distancing or inform workers of exposure to the virus. Six workers reportedly contracted COVID-19.

“McDonald's workers are essential workers, but the company has treated us as expendable as yesterday's garbage,'' said Lizzet Aguilar, one of the strike leaders at the Boyle Heights locations. “If we are to truly stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, workers like us need more power in the workplace and the ability to report issues without fear of retaliation.''

Inspections of roughly 2,000 restaurants -- not just McDonald's -- over one weekend in late June found nearly half of businesses not complying with regulations, leading to a ban of indoor dining. However, hundreds of compliance checks over Labor Day weekend of various businesses found “reasonably good'' compliance, according to a Department of Public Health statement.

Workplaces have been a driver of virus transmission, and the Board of Supervisors has promoted worker councils to help support public health efforts by reporting non-compliant businesses.

Earlier this summer, the board asked its lawyers to determine whether county employees who work outside the health department could be assigned to assess fines against out-of-compliance businesses, to keep up with the workload. Hundreds of county workers in departments other than Public Health or Health Services have already been drafted to do other work outside of their day-to-day jobs in the battle against COVID-19.

More information on the state of the fast-food industry's response to COVID-19 is available through a report released Tuesday by the union, “Essential, Not Expendable,'' which includes the stories of janitors, nursing home workers, home health workers, ride share drivers and fast-food workers.

It is available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-zBzxZpX4d1IoFgfelAHJR4ZsEcjzVg2/view.

Photo: Getty Images

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