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Los Angeles McDonald’s Restaurant Workers Strike, Demand Sick Leave After Co-Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19

Reporter Roundup is a collaboration between PBS SoCal/KCET and KPCC/LAist to bring you the biggest headlines M-F about COVID-19. Watch the April 3 episode here.

Workers at a Los Angeles McDonald's restaurant walked off their jobs Monday for a second day, demanding the company pay them for two weeks while they self-quarantine following the disclosure that a female co-worker tested positive for COVID-19.

Honking their car horns at lunch hour near the drive-through line, employees at the restaurant on Crenshaw Boulevard near 28th Street allege their jobs pose them "imminent danger" because they lack protective masks, gloves and cleaning supplies, and are unable to distance themselves from other workers.

Bartolome Perez, 49, a cook for 30 years at the site, said he has not felt any COVID-19 symptoms, but the outbreak has taken an emotional toll as he worries about taking the illness home to his children and grandchildren.

"I am extremely agitated," Perez said. "Agitated due to the fact that these corporations, these CEOS, are taking money over the safety of their employees...If I'm coming to work because I'm forced to come to work to work to pay the bills, I'm coming back home to my grandchildren and my kids. And so that obviously increases the potential to me exposing the virus to my family. "

In a complaint filed Monday with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal-OSHA, Perez and his fellow employees allege they were not told that a co-worker with whom they might have had direct contact tested positive for the coronavirus until they showed up for work on Saturday and found the business closed. They were told to return to work the next day.

"I request that Cal-OSHA conduct an immediate on-site inspection of my workplace," Perez wrote in the complaint. "The conditions in our store pose an imminent danger to our health and that of our coworkers."

Signs reading "We don't want to die" taped to the inside of a car window, during protest at McDonalds on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay
Signs reading "We don't want to die" taped to the inside of a car window, during protest at McDonalds on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay
Cars in drive thru line at McDonalds on Crenshaw Blvd, during a protest for pay after coworker tested for coronavirus | Karen Foshay
Cars in drive thru line at McDonalds on Crenshaw Blvd, during a protest for pay after coworker tested for coronavirus | Karen Foshay
Man wearing a mask wearing a Unions for All lanyard, during protest at McDonalds on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay
Man wearing a mask wearing a Unions for All lanyard, during protest at McDonalds on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay
McDonald's sign reading "Open Drive-Thru & Take-Out" | Karen Foshay
McDonald's sign reading "Open Drive-Thru & Take-Out" | Karen Foshay
Sign reading "McDonalds protege a tús trabajadores #Fightfor15"on car window, with woman in driver's seat during McDonald's protest on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay
Sign reading "McDonalds protege a tús trabajadores #Fightfor15"on car window, with woman in driver's seat during McDonald's protest on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay
Sign reading "Workers Health is Public Health #Fightfor15" on car window during protest at McDonalds on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay
Sign reading "Workers Health is Public Health #Fightfor15" on car window during protest at McDonalds on April 6, 2020 | Karen Foshay

McDonald's Corp. issued a statement from the franchise owner Nicole Enearu that said she notified public health authorities and shut down the restaurant to "conduct a thorough sanitization procedure” immediately after being notified an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. The employee, Enearu said, is under medical care.

"Our highest priority is to protect the health and well-being of our people," Enearu said. "We identified and reached out to all restaurant staff who had been in close contact with the employee who contracted the virus. These employees have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days to ensure they remain healthy before returning to work."

Enearu, who along with her mother and sister own 13 McDonald's restaurants, said she has been in contact with the worker and is committed to paying her and other employees who need to quarantine.

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"Additionally, we have made an ample supply of gloves available to our employees and encourage frequent hand washing in the restaurant," she said. "We are also taking additional precautions by doing wellness checks with our employees before each shift to ensure they are feeling their best. Employees who are not feeling well are asked to stay home."

The job action was organized by "Fight for $15 LA," an organization "uniting the fast-food industry workers of Los Angeles," according to its website. The organization seeks a $15 an hour wage for fast-food workers, paid sick leave, and the right to form a union without retaliation. 

A similar strike organized by the Fight for $15 organization occurred at a McDonald's in San Jose, where workers walked off their jobs while alleging they lack personal protective equipment, including gloves, hand soap and sanitizer. Similar strikes have occurred in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina and Missouri.

The earlier actions prompted three former Democratic presidential candidates to repeat their calls for paid sick leave, a regular issue during their campaigns. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on McDonald's, Walmart and Amazon to provide paid sick leave to their employees during the COVID-19 outbreak. California Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wrote a letter to McDonald's President and CEO Chris Kempczinski commending him for keeping his businesses open, but asking him to provide employees with two weeks of emergency paid sick leave and 10 weeks of job-protected paid family leave and medical leave during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Several companies, from Salesforce to Patagonia, have pledged to continue to pay all employees, including hourly and part-time workers, their regular pay even as they close physical locations," the senators wrote. "Starbucks has announced an enhanced paid sick leave policy, offering all employees affected by COVID-19 up to two weeks of full pay and up to 26 weeks of additional pay replacement, in addition to free access to mental health resources."

In its statement, McDonald's said it is continuing to make changes in its restaurant operations to serve food safely. On March 23, Joe Erlinger, who runs McDonald's United States operations, issued a statement that said employees at company-owned restaurants impacted by the virus were receiving two weeks paid leave to tend to health needs. "A large percentage" of workers at franchised restaurants would receive paid leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress.

"As reported by the National Restaurant Association this week, the restaurant industry stands to lose 5 to 7 million million jobs as a result of the coronavirus," Erlinger wrote. "Combined with our franchisees, McDonald’s provides approximately 850,000 jobs in the U.S. and pays billions in payroll every year. That’s why we have been working to ensure our franchisees, many of whom are small business owners, have the economic support they need so they aren’t forced to close their doors. If they can stay open, they are able to give their employees job security and peace of mind in a safe environment."

McDonald's said it also had plans to make thermometers available to all restaurants; send non-medical grade masks to restaurants "in the areas of greatest need'; make gloves available to crew members; install protective barriers at drive-throughs, and increase cleaning of high-touch surfaces.

The coronavirus pandemic has rallied other unions to protest conditions they allege in workplaces. Last week, the California Nurses Association protested outside UCI Medical Center in Orange, complaining nurses lacked masks and other gear to protect themselves.

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