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by Jason Flynn

Adriana Alvarez has worked at McDonald’s for 18 years, and despite the consistently poor working conditions had avoided filing any sort of official complaint for fear of drawing unwanted reprisals from her bosses. 

Workers and supporters protest a wage theft at a McDonalds store at 2827 S Cicero Ave, Cicero, Ill.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, and McDonald’s refused to close its doors in the face of a global public health catastrophe, she decided she couldn’t stay quiet anymore. 

We didn’t have masks, we didn’t have sanitation stations, or even really soap to wash our hands. We weren’t being told to maintain social distancing,” Alvarez told me, speaking through an interpreter.

Alvarez filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), hoping the oversight agency would pressure the store into making changes or take McDonald’s to task for its negligence. 

Nothing happened, at first, and Alvarez caught COVID while working at McDonald’s. 

The manager never informed her, or any other workers, that employees at the store had caught the virus. She had to find out from other employees.

Alvarez said at least six other people at her store also got sick, and many, like Kenia Campeano, ended up bringing it home to their families. 

“One of the managers got sick, spread it to her dad, and he ended up passing away,” Alvarez said. 

Alvarez and Campeano both work at a McDonald’s on the south side of Chicago in Gage Park, a neighborhood between Midway Airport and Englewood. 

That part of the city, where a much higher percentage of low-income and families of color reside, experienced disproportionate deaths from the virus.

Vaccine distribution is lagging in the neighborhood despite the higher rate of mortality. 

from @chivaxbot on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChiVaxBot
from @chivaxbot on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChiVaxBot

OSHA received over 2,600 COVID-19 related complaints from restaurants and eating places since they began keeping track in February of 2020 according to the most recent public report of closed cases. 

Complaints to the oversight agency from the food service industry aren’t very common. 

It keeps track of over 600,000 eating establishments, and amid a global pandemic OSHA noted complaints from less than a half percent of those. 

That doesn’t mean those restaurants don’t have health and safety issues. 

Rather, workers are unwilling or unable to file a report because they don’t know how best to get in touch, they don’t know how to navigate the web of state versus federal oversight agencies, they need assistance filling out the forms for accuracy or language barrier, or they’re afraid of retribution from an employer. 

Alvarez and Campeano said they wouldn’t have been able to file their complaints on their own without help from Fight for 15 campaign organizers. 

The majority of COVID-related complaints came from national and regional chains, though one in particular, McDonald’s, stands out far and away from the rest. 

The fast food behemoth has one hundred more complaints than the next closest offender, and about as many complaints as the next four chains combined, which includes Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Subway. 

“McDonald’s as company is really a big reason for that, because a lot of vulnerable workers go to work at McDonald’s, specifically undocumented workers go to McDonald’s because they’ll get hired no questions asked,” Campeano said. “McDonald’s, at the end of the day, doesn’t care about the quality, they care about the quantity, right, so many of those workers are then exploited.”

As of May 11 2021, OSHA issued penalties of just over $145,000 to food and agriculture companies, according to Civil Eats.

On top of that, workers say changes made are often temporary, or just for show, as restaurants are often informed ahead of time they’ll be inspected, and many are never inspected in person. 

“[They’re] making it easier for the corporation to get away with what they’re doing,” Campeano said. 

It was only after an OSHA representative visited their McDonald’s store in person that Campeano and Alvarez got access to the most basic of necessities. 

That visit was coupled with more than twenty complaints from McDonald’s stores around the city, and national pressure from the Fight for 15 organizing campaign assisted by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

A protesting McDonald’s worker and Fight for $15 organizer attempt to confront a store manager at the drive-thru window of a McDonald’s store in Cicero, Ill. as an on-the-clock employee looks on.

Yet, the complaints only led to limited concessions and little repercussion.

“A big piece of the puzzle is making sure that the consequences for employers that don’t follow the guidance are sizable. If you evaluate a fine and determine that the fine literally costs less than the protective equipment, well then you’ve got a pretty blunt tool to accomplish what you need to do,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers (UFW), based in California.

McDonald’s stores faced few-to-no consequences. 

They raked in cash while their employees and employees’ families struggled with illness.

“My store, I know, made more than $300,000 in during the worst of the pandemic, and they kept making money,” Campeano said. “Despite making all the money they were making, they still did not offer to pay quarantine pay for workers, forcing a lot of workers to go to work sick, and make the problem even worse.”

Alvarez said that while she was happy to speak out against the company she didn’t do so without consequences. 

“I got a day cut from my schedule, and people did end up judging me and saying ‘well, look at that, they cut a day from your schedule for speaking up,’” Alvarez said. “My response to them has always been if I hadn’t spoken up and done something there wouldn’t be any changes here. We wouldn’t have our masks. We wouldn’t have soap and sanitation stations, and more people would just be getting sick.”

If OSHA is going be effective, workers say, at bare minimum it needs to stop doing announced workplace inspections. 

Workers also say OSHA needs to be conducting pre-interviews with workers that made the complaints to clarify and understand the full extent of problems.

But, fixing OSHA won’t correct all of the issues with McDonald’s or the restaurant industry as a whole. 

A representative for the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign gives a speech during a protest outside a McDonald’s store in Cicero, Ill.

“We need all the support that we can get from different organizations, other workers. Like go out with us when we do protests and marches, join us, because we can’t live in fear of our hours being cut or retaliation or any type of pushback,” Alvarez said.  “We just need to join together.”