Fast Food Workers Face Safety Risks from Both Covid and Customers, Labor Study Finds

Over half of the industry's frontline workers reported experiencing physical or verbal abuse and a lack of adequate PPE.

A person getting fast food in a drive-thru
Photo: Vasil Dimitrov / Getty Images

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) recently commissioned a study on the effects that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had on fast food workers throughout Los Angeles County. The study, which was conducted by the UCLA Labor Center, involved surveying 417 non-managerial fast food workers and interviewing 15 fast food workers to discuss their experiences with protective equipment, vaccines, hours and scheduling issues, and their interactions with customers during the pandemic.

The findings are… grim, if predictably so. "In 2020, fast food work, as indoor work done in close proximity, placed workers at particular risk for COVID-19," the authors wrote. "Previous studies showed that even before COVID-19, fast-food workers in Los Angeles County faced disproportionately high rates of injury, workplace violence, harassment, retaliation, and wage theft."

Some of the study's other findings included:

  • Half of workers reported that they were not provided with enough masks or gloves, or that they were not given adequate PPE often enough. "Nearly 40 [percent of respondents] purchased their own masks or gloves, and more than one in ten needed the supplies but could not afford to buy their own."
  • Over half (53 percent) experienced negative interactions with customers or coworkers with regard to COVID-related safety protocols, including being yelled at, threatened, or physically assaulted.
  • Almost one quarter (23 percent) of respondents said they had tested positive for COVID-19 during the past 18 months, while almost half (49 percent) said they knew of coworkers who had tested positive.
  • Less than half (47 percent) of respondents said they received paid sick leave if they or their coworkers contracted COVID-19.

"Our study shows that fast-food workers face an array of workplace challenges that extend beyond COVID-19," Saba Waheed, a co-author of the report and Research Director at the UCLA Labor Center, said in a statement. "Half of the fast-food workers we surveyed also experienced verbal abuse, and over a third experienced violence such as threats, racial slurs, and even assault. And this is on top of dealing with wage theft, insufficient hours, and other health and safety hazards. The pandemic lifted up how essential this workforce is, and we need to address the deeper structural problems in the sector."

According to the report, more than 4.5 million people throughout the United States worked in fast food, including 150,000 who work in and around Los Angeles. More than one third of the restaurant workers in Los Angeles County work in fast food. "Fast-food workers have showed up every day of the COVID-19 pandemic, risking our lives to keep our stores open and our communities fed," Angelica Hernandez, a Los Angeles McDonald's worker, said in a statement.

"The companies we work for have called us essential, but this report shows they think we're disposable and that they've decided keeping us in unsafe and unsanitary conditions is worth it for higher corporate profits. But we won't be silent — my co-workers and I will continue to fight for better working conditions and a voice on the job, so that our families and our communities can feel safe and thrive."

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