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McDonald’s Workers in 20 Cities Stage Strikes Over Company’s Alleged “Failed Response” to COVID-19 Pandemic

Hundreds of McDonald’s workers in 20 cities across the country went on strike Wednesday morning to protest what they say is the company’s “failed response” towards its employees needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers in Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Detroit, and more all walked off the job Wednesday morning. Some held small, socially distanced pickets in front of their locations, others held vehicle parades, and others participated in a video conference and “virtual strike” in the afternoon. 

“As the pandemic took hold, McDonald’s dished out nearly $1 billion in dividends to line shareholders’ pockets, but we had to go on strike to get masks,” said Maria Chavez, a San Joe McDonald’s worker who led a strike at her store in March, in a statement emailed to press. “The company has failed in every way to protect us—it has failed to provide adequate PPE, failed to enforce social distancing, failed to protect employees when workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and failed to provide paid sick leave to all who wear the company’s uniform. We don’t want to die, so we are going on strike, to let McDonald’s know our lives are essential.”

The strike comes as the burger giant holds its annual shareholders meeting, which has become a target for protest by employees demanding better wages and working conditions nearly every year. Last year hundreds took to the streets in front of the company’s Chicago headquarters in the West Loop and were joined by both local and national political figures. The workers are organized under the banner of the Fight for 15 movement, which has been pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage for all service workers since 2012. 

Striking McDonald’s workers outside the company’s headquarters in the West Loop in May of 2019. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

In lieu of a mass demonstration at McDonald’s headquarters this year, union organizers left silhouettes holding strike signs in front of the building. Meanwhile the American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a roving digital billboard that circled the building Wednesday afternoon. 

On Tuesday, the ACLU sent a public letter to McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski requesting a meeting to discuss getting all workers paid sick leave. 

“McDonald’s is endangering the lives of its workforce and our communities by refusing to give all employees paid sick days and family and medical leave,” said Nicole Regalado, a deputy director in the ACLU’s National Political Advocacy Department, in a press release. “McDonald’s employees—a majority of whom are women and people of color who are more at risk from COVID-19 due to gender and racial disparities in access to healthcare among other factors—are still showing up to work everyday, even when they’re feeling sick. No one should be forced to choose between their health and their job. We won’t stop fighting until McDonald’s gives all of its employees—in corporate and franchised restaurants—paid leave.”

Union organizers say that a lack of paid sick leave is just one of many grievances with the company workers have. In San Francisco, workers filed a complaint with the local health department alleging managers said “not to worry” about a lack of masks and suggested using coffee filters instead. In Detroit, workers were allegedly issued one mask and told to clean it with hand sanitizer. Workers in Houston who were told to self-quarantine for two weeks after an employee tested positive allegedly had to do so without pay. Workers in several cities – including Chicago – also allege that the company failed to notify them after employees tested positive for COVID-19 and failed to deep clean its stores. 

Because of these factors, striking workers and their allies say that it’s still too early to reopen stores for dine-in services. 

“It’s premature to talk about opening when workers still have to go on strike and file health complaints to get PPE or have social distancing enforced and when the company’s response to positive tests remains haphazard,” said Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker. “The company has failed in its response to the COVID-19 crisis and should not be talking about reopening dining rooms until it proves it can provide workers with the basic and essential safety protections we need to keep ourselves and our customers safe.”

In addition to the strike, five McDonald’s workers in Chicago filed a class-action lawsuit this week against the company. The complaint alleges that at four locations in the Chicagoland area the company has failed to provide basic safety equipment such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to workers, denied workers the equipment where it was available and even accused them of attempting to steal it. Additionally, the complaint alleges that managers have not informed their staff when an employee is suspected of being infected, and that staff have not been given proper training on how to protect themselves or customers. 

“McDonald’s has purported to adopt a comprehensive and effective response to COVID-19, on a centralized national basis,” reads the complaint. “Yet, at the stores where Plaintiffs work, McDonald’s has failed to take adequate steps in response to the pandemic…The damage done by McDonald’s decisions is not confined to the walls of its restaurants, but instead has broader public health consequences for the Chicago community, the State of Illinois, and the entire country.”

David Tovar, McDonald’s vice president for U.S. communications, told USA Today that Wednesday’s actions only involved a small portion of the company’s workers and that stores now have an adequate supply of PPE. The company also responded to the suit with a statement saying it values its employees. 

“Crew and managers are the heart and soul of the restaurants in which they work, and their safety and well-being is a top priority that guides our decision making,” McDonald’s USA said in a statement, according to The Hill.

Workers say however, that the company’s actions don’t match their words.

Ieshia Townsend, a McDonald’s worker in Chicago, said in a video message posted to Twitter that she’s fighting for paid sick time and PPE. “You keep saying that we’re essential,” said Townsend. “We come in your corporation. We work for you. Due to the COVID-19 situation it’s a possibility that we can get sick or take sick home to our families. This is not something we want.”

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