Low wage, essential workers demand better protections in California

Low-wage, essential workers who can’t do their jobs from home are facing an unequal playing field as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue. In California, many of the state’s 556,000 fast-food workers have protested what they call a widespread lack of basic health and safety protections. Now, many are advocating for a new law to address long-standing issues in the industry. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports. This story is part of our ongoing series, Chasing the Dream: Poverty, Opportunity and Justice in America.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The COVID-19 pandemic revealed two distinct workforces: those who could do their jobs from home and those who had to show up in person. A recent increase in labor strikes and protests is drawing attention to what some workers say was unequal treatment.

    In California, low-wage, essential workers—including many of the state's more than half a million fast-food workers—are backing a new proposed law they believe will address both COVID-related and long-standing issues.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports now from northern California. This story is part of our ongoing series, Chasing the Dream: Poverty, Opportunity and Justice in America.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-September, a group of fast-food workers from across the San Francisco Bay area brought a list of demands to the manager of this Jack in the Box in Castro Valley.

    Workers here said they needed better COVID-19 health and safety protections.

  • Ingrid Vilorio:

    Whether we are full-time or part-time, we have a right to sick days. And they should pay us for those days. We need to be paid for having to quarantine because of Covid-19.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Two days earlier, Ingrid Viloria and two other employees filed a joint complaint to California's labor law enforcement agencies.

  • Ingrid Vilorio:

    They don't take our temperature. They don't give us masks.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In the complaint, Vilorio claims when she caught Covid last March she was not paid for the four shifts she missed. California requires employers the size of hers to provide up to 80 hours of Covid-19 related paid sick leave.

  • Ingrid Vilorio:

    It's frustrating because you have a bad month, you're sick and on top of that, you don't get paid.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    California employs more fast-food workers than any other state. The majority are people of color over 23. They earn some of the lowest wages in the state, an average of $13.27 an hour.

    The protest was organized by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. Its Fight for 15 and a Union campaign focuses on fast-food employees and other low wage workers. Since the start of the pandemic it has led strikes and actions at more than 200 fast food restaurants across the state, including a 48-day strike at this Mcdonald's in Oakland that began in May of 2020.

    Delia Vargas works there, and participated in the strike. She says at the start of the pandemic, her manager provided workers with masks made of dog diapers and coffee filters.

  • Delia Vargas:

    She said the important thing is to protect yourself. But they never talked to us about what was happening at the store, that infections were spreading. Never.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Vargas says workers were encouraged to come into work while sick.

  • Delia Vargas:

    One person who worked the night shift got really sick. And then her coworkers on the night shift got infected. That's when we realized how serious things were.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The franchise owner told local reporters that the store was in full compliance with cod and state-level orders. And he said all claims of workers being asked to wear coffee filters and dog diapers were entirely false. Yet four workers filed a lawsuit in June of 2020, claiming the owner's quote, "dangerous…and unjustifiable…practices" unquote, had resulted in a Covid-19 outbreak among 11 employees and a worker's 10-month old baby.

    And a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility found infections spread throughout their communities, including two nearby McDonald's where Vargas and other employees also work.

    The owner denied all accusations in his legal filings.

    In August of 2020, the workers and the franchise owner announced a settlement. The restaurant agreed to implement new safety and paid sick leave policies and a management-worker committee to ensure compliance with the new measures.

  • Delia Vargas:

    I feel proud that my coworkers and I succeeded in getting what we asked for. And they did not fire us. But I also feel sad when I think about the fact that we had to force them to react.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    As for Ingrid Vilorio at the Jack in The Box in Castro Valley, she says that since filing her complaint, workers have received masks and Covid-19 related paid sick leave.

    PBS NewsHour Weekend reached out for comment to the owner of the franchise and received no reply. But it did receive a statement from Jack in The Box Inc. the corporate office.It said the company has complied with all federal, state, and local laws and ordinances since the beginning of the pandemic.

    Despite the recent wins for workers like Vargas and Vilorio, the changes they fought for only apply to the stores where they work, that's because of how the franchise system works: While corporations contractually determine how their restaurants operate, the franchise, owned as small businesses, is legally responsible for wages and working conditions.

    Workers with the fight for 15 campaign and a union are lobbying the state's legislature to pass a law that will change that: The Fast Recovery Act, introduced last January.

    It would make California the first state in the country to create a fast food sector council. A committee of fast food workers, employers and state agencies would determine new standards for the industry.

  • Delia Vargas:

    This will help us because there will be people like us, who know what it is like, to sit and talk with the people who up until now have not taken us seriously.

  • Mary kay Henry:

    I think we're going to learn that the rules are rigged against workers

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Mary Kay Henry is the international SEIU president. The union is co-sponsoring the Fast Recovery Act. With just 1% of all US Restaurant workers being members of a union, she says collective bargaining is a challenge in the industry.

  • Mary Kay Henry:

    Bargaining one store at a time is not the most powerful way for those workers to have a say when the economic decisions of their store owners are made at the multinational headquarters.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The Fast Recovery Act would hold corporations liable for ensuring their franchises comply with health and safety standards. And it would give franchisees the opportunity to seek compensation if compliance with a contract contributes to breaking the law.

  • Mary Kay Henry:

    That's why the fast recovery at the state level is a way to help fast food workers join together and actually have the power to bargain with the franchise owners, who could then put pressure on the multinational corporations.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Jot Condie is the CEO of the California Restaurant Association.

  • Jot Condie:

    California has some of the most protective laws for working people in the country, if not the world.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The trade group lobbies on behalf its 22,000 members, who he says are mostly people of color and women who own franchises and independent restaurants in the state.

  • Jot Condie:

    We will be the first to say that if there is any business that is engaged in anything that is illegal that they should be held to account. And there are a myriad of agencies and departments, commissions that are tasked with doing that.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    He contends the proposed act unfairly targets the fast-food industry, and that establishing a statewide advisory council would give an unelected body, rather than legislators, the power to establish labor standards.

  • Jot Condie:

    They would have the authority to repeal or amend, without any check, laws that have been put in place by our legislature or by Cal/OSHA or by the standards board over the last 50 years. It is an extraordinarily, almost breathtaking, abdication of authority by the state legislature on fundamental policy matters of workplace safety, wages, working conditions.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    California did pass a number of worker protections during the pandemic, from additional paid sick days to emergency workplace rules. Yet many low wage workers in the state were not able to take advantage of them.

    That's according to the joint survey study "Few Options, Many Risks", by Alejandra Domenzain of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley, and Winifred Khao, of the civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.

  • Alejandra Domenzain:

    Essential workers are the ones that are keeping our economy going. They're integral members of our society. And even in this life or death situation, you know, we weren't able to make it a priority to really protect them.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    They surveyed 636 mostly Latino and Asian workers across several industries in California in the winter of 2020, including restaurant, domestic work, janitorial and hospitality.

  • Winifred Khao:

    Based on those surveys, we found a host of challenges that low-wage Asian and Latinx workers were continuing to face during the pandemic, including the lack of information about their legal rights and health and safety protections and requirements.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    A third of respondents – and 59% of restaurant workers surveyed – were unable to physically distance most of the time at work.

  • Winifred Khao:

    About a fifth of those workers working under the minimum wage were not given basic protections like masks or personal protective equipment.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Then there was the matter of their pay.

  • Winifred Khao:

    One in five workers who were surveyed weren't even being paid the minimum wage, even as they were performing essential work during the pandemic.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And almost half of workers who expressed their Covid concerns to their employer claimed they were either ignored or didn't have their concerns adequately addressed. Many said they experienced retaliation. This has led to criticism of those charged with keeping workers safe.

  • Alejandra Domenzain:

    Under administrations of both parties our labor law enforcement agencies have been chronically underfunded, understaffed to the point where they're really not effective. It is not a credible threat to employers that someone will come and inspect them and cite them for their violations.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    California's Division of Occupational Health and Safety, or Cal/OSHA, told us in an email that it currently has a 17% vacancy rate for inspectors it is working to fill.

    And it said quote, "Cal/OSHA fulfills its enforcement mission by conducting targeted inspections… When safety violations are found, Cal/OSHA issues citations with a monetary penalty that requires hazards be abated."

    Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU says the Fast Recovery Act would ensure Cal/OSHA works together with employers and workers to make long-needed changes in the fast-food industry.

  • Mary Kay Henry:

    I think we are going to see other legislative efforts like this fast-food bill in California spread to other states. Workers have had it. They're joining together in record numbers and are going to create the pressure that forces a national solution for fast workers.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The bill, which failed to pass the assembly by three votes in June, will be up for reconsideration in January.

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