Workers at the McDonald’s on Fillmore Street have filed a complaint. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF McDonald’s workers file complaint with city over coronavirus exposure

Allegations include lack of social distancing or protective gear

McDonald’s workers in San Francisco joined in a nationwide labor action Wednesday after registering complaints to health officials about an alleged lack of safety precautions that they say led to coronavirus cases among coworkers.

Workers in 20 cities walked out to protest a lack of proper personal protective gear, paid sick days and hazard pay in advance of the McDonald’s shareholder meeting on Thursday, said the Fight for $15 and Service Employees International Union.

From Chicago to Detroit, similar accounts compiled by the union highlighted what it said were inadequate sanitation plans, lack of notification when employees tested positive and a low or nonexistent mask supply. Los Angeles workers filed notices with the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and Cal/OSHA Workers that alleged the company’s practices put them in danger.

In San Francisco, workers have filed three such complaints with the San Francisco Department of Public Health this month, although McDonalds management has denied the allegations.

Lidia Villafuerte is one of five McDonald’s workers on strike who filed complaints with the City over the company’s practices. She learned in mid-April that a coworker was sick with coronavirus, not through the company but from another coworker. Villafuerte sought the use of her sick leave out of fear her diabetes would put her at high risk for serious conditions and didn’t want to spread it to her two children at home and two nephews she looks after.

“I do need the money, I do want to work, but I want to be safe,” said Villafuerte, a worker at the Bayshore location. “They’re risking our lives. How are we going to stop this spread if they’re not doing their part?”

As symptoms like loss of taste started to appear, Villafuerte said she was told she could take a leave of absence but without pay. A few days later, she tested positive for coronavirus, as did her daughter who worked from home. The two quarantined at home together and worried their condition would worsen.

McDonald’s workers call for personal protective equipment at a protest outside the Fillmore location on April 30. (Photo courtesy Eric Rudd/Fight for $15)

From what Villafuerte could tell, up to eight coworkers on her shift were not told they were exposed or sent home, nor was the store thoroughly cleaned. She knows of at least two other coworkers who had coronavirus.

“I could have infected so many people,” Villafuerte said. “They say we’re essential workers but they don’t care about us. They didn’t tell us in the proper way that we had been exposed.”

Another worker at a McDonald’s in the Bayview District, who was redacted from an April 27 complaint obtained by the Examiner, alleged their hours were cut by more than half after wearing a mask and gloves against the manager’s instructions. Though they were told to stay six feet apart from other workers, the worker said it was difficult to maintain and a social distancing plan wasn’t put in place.

The worker wrote to DPH that they ultimately took an unpaid one-month leave despite needing the income to care for their four children, due to fears of spreading the virus to their diabetic partner.

In another complaint, workers at the Fillmore location in San Francisco alleged they were initially told to use coffee filters as masks before masks were provided in April.

Fillmore workers alleged they counted four workers who got sick at the location, through word of mouth, but said that while an overnight cleaning was observed in mid-April, management did not notify anyone. They added masks were provided but not used consistently by managers themselves.

“Please understand, we do not blame our coworkers for coming in sick when they have no other way to be paid,” the Fillmore workers wrote. “McDonald’s will not pay us to quarantine and makes us afraid of retaliation and to take care of our families we do not always have a choice. McDonald’s is responsible for what is happening and has not taken steps to protect us.”

Peter Ou, the McDonald’s Fillmore owner and operator, said there have been no confirmed cases at his location and that strict social distancing, wellness checks, and use of masks and gloves have been enforced. The Bayshore owner and operator, Scott Rodrick, said the same for his branch and denied that he didn’t notify staff when discovering that some employees had tested positive.

“Our organization is committed to protecting our crew in accordance with the guidance of the CDC and in full compliance with all state-level orders, including sick pay and PPE requirements,” Rodrick said in a statement. “We are disappointed to learn of this individual complaint as it does not represent the actions we have taken in our restaurants as we continue to serve the healthcare heroes on the frontlines.”

A DPH spokesperson wasn’t able to review the complaints by press time but did share guidelines for restaurants. The City advises a social distancing protocol and sanitation requirements to be posted and distributed, masks to be provided and usage enforced, and to provide sanitizer at entrances and points of purchase. Employees and employers can contact DPH about health orders at 628-217-6381 or workplacesites@sfdph.org, and workers outside the home can get tested for free regardless of symptoms.

McDonald’s said in a release on Tuesday that it was “confident” its employees would be able to access sick pay through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security Act. A survey from SEIU found that 78 percent of employees reported not having access to paid sick leave.

“As we navigate through this crisis, we will remain focused on the one goal that matters most: protecting the safety, security and well-being of employees and customers while playing what part we can to bring a little comfort and normalcy to our communities as only McDonald’s can,” the company wrote Tuesday.

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