Some of America’s fast-food workers are finally getting face masks and emergency sick days to help get them through the coronavirus outbreak. Now the challenge for labor activists is to capitalize on the moment to win permanent improvements in pay and benefits.
The rank and file wouldn’t normally be in position to make demands in a job market that’s suddenly teeming with millions of newly unemployed people. But with restaurant drive-thru and pickup services continuing through the pandemic, restaurant workers braving the front lines have won the moral high ground to ask for more protection from their employers. And, in many cases, they’ve gotten it -- a rare victory for employees in an industry known for its resistance to organized labor.
With public sympathy on the workers’ side, groups such as Fight for $15 argue that now is the time to seek more lasting change. But it’ll be tough. Sales at restaurants and franchises have dropped precipitously, with no recovery in sight. Even before Covid-19 swept across the U.S., restaurant workers were having a tough time getting traction on better pay and benefits because companies argued they were in a
In response to recent employee pleas,
These safety steps followed ones taken by some groceries, which have installed plexiglass shields to protect cashiers, and big-box stores, which have
But permanent raises and health benefits are going to be harder to come by for most U.S. restaurant workers.
More than 3 million of them have already lost their jobs, according to the National Restaurant Association. Now, with so many potential hires available, managers trying to keep their businesses alive are unlikely to spend money to meet employee demands.
“The Titanic is sinking and crew grievances aren’t at the top of the list of things that they’re trying to work through at the moment,” said Aaron Allen of Aaron Allen & Associates Global Restaurant Consultants. While worker danger may be higher than ever, the pandemic has altered the dynamics. “When you go to a massive amount of unemployment, it shifts from buyers’ market to sellers’ market,” he said.
“Unfortunately I think we’re taking a step back here,” said Rob Hunziker of Advanced Restaurant Sales, a restaurant brokerage, agreeing that restaurant employees are unlikely to see permanent higher wages or other benefits now.
This has not stopped Fight for $15 from pushing for safer workplaces. It has led recent strikes at McDonald’s restaurants throughout the U.S. protesting working conditions, lost hours and pay cuts.
The most recent strike, over the weekend in Los Angeles, followed a McDonald’s employee testing positive for Covid-19. Before McDonald’s changed its policy, some of the chain’s workers said they weren’t allowed to wear masks or gloves on the job. The weekend’s protest included demands for protective equipment, as well as a paid two-week quarantine period.
McDonald’s has not commented directly on the Fight for $15 demands, but provided a statement from the owner-operator of the impacted Los Angeles location. The restaurant has been closed for sanitizing and the sick employee and those in contact with that employee are being paid during a 14-day quarantine.
Just a few months ago, Taco Bell was trying to lure in new managers with
While some chain restaurants are now paying little more per hour as so-called hazard pay, the increases are temporary. Chipotle, for example, is raising hourly pay 10% from March 16 through April 12.
And public health concerns have also led some restaurants to provide
The labor organization effort faces long odds, since the restaurant industry has had very low rates of unionization, says Brishen Rogers, a labor expert at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.
But Fight for $15 is still pushing, arguing that the outbreak has made health benefits even more vital. “We’ve always been fighting for health care, paid sick leave and protection on the job for all workers,” said Jamilah Allen, a worker at Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers in Durham, North Carolina, and a leader of the group, “and right now we need it more than anything else.”
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