- Fast food and the broader restaurant industry are plagued by problems such as workers’ low pay, lack of paid sick leave, and systematic racism.
- The coronavirus pandemic has exposed these issues, as fast-food workers strike and quit their jobs in protest.
- Underlying issues have festered in fast food for years. During the coronavirus pandemic, the rest of America is finally paying attention.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The coronavirus has turned fast-food workers into essential employees. But requiring workers to go into work despite their health concerns has thrust the industry’s inequalities and unfair practices into the limelight.
In recent weeks, dozens of workers from chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Domino’s have organized strikes and walkouts as part of the Fight for 15 movement, which has been pushing for $15 an hour minimum wages and union rights in the fast-food industry over the past eight years.
Many, many more workers have simply stopped showing up to work. Former employees from chains like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Arby’s told Business Insider that they no longer wanted to risk catching coronavirus at low-paying jobs where they felt disrespected by their employers.
“Every day we risk our health and the health of our family that await us at home,” said Nelson Santiago, who recently quit his job at Wendy’s and was laid off at Golden Corral due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel disrespected and humiliated,” Santiago said. “Where’s the hazard pay that other companies are giving their loyal employees as a show of appreciation?”
While workers are striking and quitting due to a lack of masks and gloves, as well as fears they will catch the coronavirus, many of the underlying issues have festered for years. The only difference is now, during the coronavirus pandemic, the rest of America is finally paying attention.
No paid sick leave, low pay, and a lack of benefits are not new problems
The lack of paid sick leave made headlines in mid-March, as fear grew that retail and restaurant employees would spread the coronavirus simply because they had no choice but to show up to work.
Companies, including McDonald’s, KFC, and Amazon, announced new sick leave policies that would give employees two weeks of paid leave. While these changes did not impact most fast-food workers, who are employed by independent franchisees, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires all employers with 50 to 500 workers to provide 14 days of paid sick leave in cases related to the coronavirus.
However, the vast majority of these sick leave policies, including the Coronavirus Response Act, only cover COVID-19 related cases. If a worker has food poisoning, or mononucleosis, or any other illness that isn’t COVID-19, they won’t get paid if they don’t come to work. Companies say they expect all sick workers to stay home if they are ill, but new policies do little to encourage this.
The New York Times reported in March that hundreds of thousands of retail and restaurant industry workers do not have paid sick leave. Citing data collected by the Shift Project between February 2018 and November 2019, The Times reported 517,000 McDonald’s workers, 347,000 Walmart workers, and 189,000 Kroger workers do not have paid sick leave.
While many of these workers now have COVID-19 related sick leave, these companies have not rolled out significant changes to their sick-leave policies for cases unrelated to the coronavirus.
This isn’t just a worker problem. The CDC reports that sick employees showing up to work caused hundreds of cases of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years. When workers are unable to pay their bills if they stay home when they’re ill, everyone gets sick.
Paid sick leave is only one problem exposed by the pandemic
Paid sick leave is just the tip of the iceberg. Many workers have been asking for hazard pay or raises for showing up to work when it could put them at risk of catching the coronavirus.
“I posted a status on Facebook the other day that got many shares, with a hashtag of ‘#thankyousdontpaymybills,'” a Taco Bell manager told Business Insider. “It seems snarky, but sadly it’s the truth of what we are dealing with.”
Again, fast-food worker pay is not a new issue. Fight for 15, backed by the Service Employees International Union, began organizing strikes among fast-food workers in 2012. The stakes may be higher for some workers during the coronavirus pandemic, but many underlying problems are the same.
A lack of comprehensive benefits puts both customers and workers at risk. Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food poisoning cases, has been calling for paid sick leave and vaccines for workers for years. According to Marler, these measures could keep workers from getting sick and spreading illnesses to customers.
“I do think that there is more than a probability that health insurance is going to be viewed as a right,” Marler said. With a looming recession, he said, questions related to restaurant workers’ protection are more crucial than ever.
“I think the economics of what’s going to happen is still not very clear,” Marler said. “To me, it is heartening, but somewhat surprising, that we haven’t seen crime, riots, grocery store runs.”
The coronavirus reveals who is expected to sacrifice the most for the least amount of money
The coronavirus has also exposed how differently wealthy and poor people are weathering the crisis.
Rich people have been flying via private jets, escaping coronavirus hotspots to go to vacation homes, and spending thousands of dollars stockpiling.
Meanwhile, fast-food workers told Business Insider they have been struggling to pay the bills and had difficulty getting to grocery stores to buy food for their families because of their hours at work.
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color. A Pew survey found 41% of white workers said they would continue to get paid if coronavirus caused them to miss work for at least two weeks, compared to 27% and 23% of Black and Hispanic workers, respectively.
Black and especially Latino workers are overrepresented in the restaurant industry. Black or African American people make up 12.3% of the population and 13.4% of restaurant workers, while Hispanic or Latinos are 17.6% of the population but 27.1% of the industry, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These workers are more likely to be in lower-paying positions, without sick leave or healthcare, than white people working in the restaurant industry. A 2014 survey by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that, after adjusting for education and language proficiency, workers of color receive 56% lower earnings than their white counterparts.
Black people have also been dying of COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate. In Illinois, for example, 113 African Americans have died out of a recorded 274 deaths. That represents 41% of all deaths in a state where the black community makes up 14.6% of the population.
“Look at the percentage of deaths in relationship to the population,” Marler said. “If you’re African American or Hispanic — it’s shocking.”
But, Marler said, understanding the systematic racism in the US, “Should we be shocked?”
Undocumented workers, who make up a significant portion of America’s food supply chain from working on farms and in restaurants, are also suffering. The Washington Post reports that most do not have health insurance. Nor are most eligible for unemployment insurance or cash payments from the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, even if they pay taxes.
The entire restaurant industry is undergoing an apocalypse
The pandemic has also exposed how shaky the entire structure of the restaurant industry really is, with tens of thousands of restaurants crumbling within days.
A JPMorgan Chase Institute analysis of 597,000 small businesses in 2015 found that half of the restaurants held a cash buffer large enough to support 16 days of business. Half did not, meaning that without income, they would run out of money in less than three weeks.
The coronavirus pandemic put this estimate to the test, as sales plummeted when restaurants closed their dining rooms and customers sheltered in place.
In the first 22 days of March, roughly 30,000 restaurants permanently shuttered, according to the National Restaurant Association. UBS predicts that up to one in five of the more than one million restaurants in the US could permanently close due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When restaurants reopen, many experts question if it will ever be the same. Will restaurants take customers’ temperatures? Will we be too scared to return to crowded bars?
But, the industry will also have to answer bigger questions.
Can restaurants develop a business model that allows them to stay in business and pay workers when sales drop? Will workers surrender their sick leave or raises once the pandemic is over? Will executives and restaurateurs attempt to address underlying problems that the coronavirus pandemic made painfully clear?
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Roger Lipton, a restaurant industry analyst, investor, and advisor, told Business Insider in late March that it was far too early to predict how the restaurant industry would adapt in this unprecedented era.
“Any pundit who thinks that they’re going to use a recent history — and by recent history, I mean the last 100 years, including the Depression — as a template for what is going to go on here? They’re kidding themselves,” Lipton said.