Fast food workers protest at a McDonald's in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood. Some employees faced retribution for taking time off to get vaccinated. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Oakland resident Paz Aguilar takes pride in being a fast food worker, something she’s been doing for 20 years. “It’s work that I like to do,” Aguilar said in Spanish, “and it’s work I do with a lot of enthusiasm.” She was working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland until last June, when a COVID-19 outbreak at the restaurant sidelined her and other employees.

Aguilar blames the outbreak on the restaurant’s management, which she alleges failed to maintain adequate safety precautions and kept employees in the dark about coworkers who became ill. “People were sick at our work but we weren’t told they were sick,” she said. “We were told, ‘They’re on vacation.’” Aguilar eventually contracted COVID-19 herself, which left her bed-ridden and unable to work. “It was devastating for me because I was working six days a week,” said Aguilar. “Now I can’t do anything.”

Paz Aguilar, who has worked in the fast food industry for over 20 years, contracted COVID-19 at her workplace in late June. Credit: Paz Aguilar

A KFC spokesperson confirmed in a statement to The Oaklandside that a COVID-19 outbreak occurred there last June, after an employee tested positive: “All employees who had been potentially exposed to the confirmed team member were placed on paid leave and asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. During the quarantine period, some of the exposed employees unfortunately did test positive for COVID-19.”

A study released last week by the Asian Law Caucus and UC Berkeley reveals that Aguilar’s experience is not unique. Hundreds of low-wage workers surveyed in the Bay Area and other parts of California—including food service workers, janitors, and domestic workers—reported subpar COVID-19 protocols and unsafe conditions at their workplaces during the pandemic.

The authors of the study surveyed 636 workers and conducted in-depth interviews with an additional eight. Many of the respondents, almost all of whom were Latinx and Asian, expressed a dual fear of contracting COVID-19 at work and being unable to support themselves and their families as a result of being sick.

Winnie Kao, head of the workers’ rights team at Asian Law Caucus, said her organization decided to conduct the statewide survey after receiving dozens of calls from workers who were terrified of getting sick on the job. “Some of the stories that folks were conveying to us were just deeply disturbing, about the conditions at their work,” said Kao. “It was clear to us that more advocacy needs to be done to provide better protections and enforcement for those workers.”

Out of the workers who completed the survey, 41% identified as Asian and 40% identified as Latinx. Almost two-thirds of survey participants were women, with a higher percentage of restaurant workers and domestic and home health care workers identifying as female. A majority of the workers surveyed, 65%, were in the Bay Area (the report does not break down responses by city).

Jennifer Esteen, a registered nurse and vice president of organizing for SEIU 1021, which represents a variety of public sector and private nonprofit workers in the Bay Area, says many of the union’s most vulnerable members, such as home health workers, are immigrants and women of color. “We’ve seen in this pandemic that a lot of people who do this caregiving work are in fact women and people of color,” Esteen said. “A lot of union jobs, especially in health care, tend to go to people of color because for many years that was the best work you could get a person who is part of a disenfranchised community.”

Esteen said the union is currently lobbying for the passage of AB 257, known as the FAST Recovery Act. If passed, it would create an 11-member council to establish statewide standards in the fast food industry, including a minimum wage, work hour limits, and improved health and safety conditions at job sites. The California State Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to approve the bill.

More than half of the workers surveyed by the Asian Law Caucus and UC Berkeley reported being paid $15 or less, and those workers were found to be less likely to receive information about COVID-19 protections from their employers than those earning higher wages.

Eighty-six percent of workers reported regularly receiving some form of face covering or PPE from their employer, although the survey didn’t ask how frequently these items were distributed or whether they were adequate for specific job tasks.

Malia Vella, vice mayor of the city of Alameda and an attorney for Teamsters Local 856, says forcing large companies and other employers to implement COVID-safety protocols has been difficult, despite emergency standards instituted by California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to prevent infection spread in workplaces.

“If we’re dealing with a private sector employer, especially one that’s in a number of different states, they are taking the minimum approach and they’re trying to automate as much as possible as opposed to really focusing on how to keep people safe,” Vella said.

Surveyed workers also cited confined spaces as a problem during the pandemic. Half of all restaurant workers in the study reported being unable to physically distance most of the time at work. Aguilar, the KFC employee in Oakland, told The Oaklandside that physical distancing at her restaurant just wasn’t possible. “We really didn’t have distance because we work so close to one another,” she said, and “masks weren’t provided until later on.”

Kao, one of the study’s authors, said the survey findings, which reflect Aguilar’s experience, do not surprise her. “I’ve been an advocate for immigrant workers for many years, and the findings in the report were consistent with the upsetting realities that we’ve seen just in our regular casework,” Kao said. “But I still couldn’t help but be surprised to see them happening during the pandemic, when the stakes are so high.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us 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. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.