McDonald's employees rallied outside their workplace in Fruitvale on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Fast food workers gathered in the parking lot of a McDonald’s on E. 12th Street in Fruitvale Tuesday to protest what they say are unfair wages and poor working conditions.

Employees from the restaurant—nearly all of whom are Hispanic women—along with workers from other fast food chains with locations in Oakland and the East Bay, utilized a flatbed truck as a makeshift platform to speak from, sharing their stories of working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In this pandemic we have seen just how far corporations have gone just to make a profit,” Maria Sabina, a McDonald’s employee, said in Spanish to the crowd. Sabina contracted COVID-19 more than once over the past year. She believes she got sick because her employer wouldn’t allow her and other staff time off. “This was terrifying for me because I live in a studio with my daughter and son that is part of another house,” she said.

The Oakland City Council passed an emergency sick leave law last year, giving workers at large companies, including most fast food franchises, 80 hours of paid days off if they became sick, or needed to care for a child.

Other issues raised by employees included exposure to excessive heat in the workplace, which they said does not have an air conditioner, an uptick in armed robberies, and workers who said they had their hours cut after taking time off to get vaccinated.

McDonalds workers on strike with support from SEUI 1020 and Fight for $15 at an East Oakland location for unfair working conditions during the pandemic. Credit: Amir Aziz

Lindsay Rainey, McDonald’s public relations manager for northern California, provided a statement from the franchise’s owner-operator Michele Haynes-Watts regarding the claims made by employees. “These allegations are untrue, and we do not tolerate retaliation,” Haynes-Watts said. “The truth of what is happening in our restaurants is we provide paid time off for employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, have rigorous protocols to notify and quarantine employees after a confirmed case, and have implemented several safety enhancements including providing PPE and conducting wellness and temperature checks before each shift.”

The rally was part of a larger campaign organized by Fight for $15, a coalition that includes SEIU Local 1021, a union representing service workers in Northern California. The union is advocating for lawmakers to pass AB 257, known as the FAST recovery act, which would establish industry-wide standards for minimum wages, maximum hours of work, and improve health and safety conditions for fast food employees.

Jennifer Esteen, SEIU Local 1021 vice president of organizing, told The Oaklandside that the franchise system many fast food restaurants operate under allows parent corporations such as McDonald’s a “legal loophole” to not set a proper minimum wage, provide health benefits and sick leave, and other worker protections. Instead, the local franchise owner who controls a restaurant sets these standards.

“It disconnects each individual franchise from the corporation even though they’re the same,” said Esteen, “and the corporation says you can’t get access to corporate benefits if it’s a franchise owner.”

A car with a pro-AB257 sticker plastered on its side is parked next to a McDonald’s Drive-Thu sign. Credit: Amir Aziz

AB257 has drawn support from local political figures such as Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan, who spoke to the workers gathered at Tuesday’s rally. “We will not let our workers get left behind, said Kaplan, “because workers have the right to respect and dignity in the workplace.”

Lorena Velasquez, another employee, said her work days were cut from four to two days after she took time off to get vaccinated. “I made the decision to get the vaccine for the sake of my family and fellow workers,” she told the crowd in Spanish.

Velasquez said that while many of her fellow workers are afraid to speak out against their employer, she is not. “My aunt taught me to never let people step on you,” she said, “and we need the power to fight back when fast food restaurants try to step on us.”

Update: A McDonald’s representative responded to The Oaklandside with a statement from the franchise’s owner-operator Michele Haynes-Watts regarding employees’ allegations. Haynes-Watts denied all allegations made by employees at Tuesday’s protest.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.