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A McDonald’s worker accuses the chain of firing her after she protested against a lack of masks and other safety concerns in a new whistleblower lawsuit.

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McDonald’s is facing a whistleblower lawsuit from a former worker, who claims she was fired after protesting the fast-food giant’s safety policies during the pandemic. 

On Friday, Maria E. Ruiz Bonilla filed the whistleblower retaliation suit against McDonald’s in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Santa Clara. 

Ruiz had worked for McDonald’s in San Jose, California for more than 16 years when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Despite being a diabetic, Ruiz said she wasn’t provided personal protective gear or even allowed to wear a mask on the job. 

“We didn’t have sanitizer, masks, gloves,” Ruiz told Business Insider through a translator. “We didn’t even have Clorox, sometimes, to clean and disinfect the store. I was in panic.” 

McDonald’s was among the many chains that did not provide workers with personal protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic, and originally discouraged employees from wearing masks in accordance with the CDC’s guidance at the time. Dozens of fast-food workers told Business Insider in March that they were terrified to go to work, as many wondered how they could avoid getting sick and if they would be able to financially support their families. 

But Ruiz went further than most when it came to speaking out about safety concerns. She started protesting, leading a series of walkouts in late March and early April, and filed complaints with health officials. 

“I was afraid, of course. I was thinking about losing my job,” Ruiz said. “But, at the same time, my fear of getting sick with COVID and dying was bigger.” 

Ruiz said that her work hours were cut in April, after she began protesting and speaking to the press. She was suspended in mid-July and fired later the same month, according to the complaint. 

“These allegations are untrue and cannot be substantiated,” McDonald’s said in a statement to Business Insider. “The employee was terminated after a thorough review found that she falsely reported a safety violation, created and provided false evidence, and lied during the investigation.”

McDonald’s said that, despite national shortages, the company worked to provide masks to employees, and that masks and gloves arrived at the San Jose location on April 12. 

Ruiz was involved in high-profile protests against McDonald’s during the pandemic 

When Ruiz began protesting against McDonald’s, she told media outlets that her location lacked masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and hand soap. Working with the Service Employees International Union-backed Fight for $15 movement, she also called for McDonald’s to provide paid sick leave for all workers. 

Ruiz and other workers filed complaints with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA), the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, and the Labor Workforce Development Agency (LWDA).

“On April 16, the local Department of Health conducted a review at the restaurant and found no major or minor violations — the DOH’s report concluded there was ample hand sanitizer and soap available, and that instructions on social distancing were prevalent and being followed by crew,” McDonald’s said in a statement. 

According to Friday’s complaint, McDonald’s managers responded to Ruiz and other employees who reported safety concerns by “rudely and yelling at them,” as well as disciplining them disproportionately.

Soon after Ruiz was fired in July, the Service Employees International Union filed a complaint on her behalf with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that she faced illegal retaliation for her workplace activism.

As part of the lawsuit filed on Friday, Ruiz is seeking to be reinstated in her position at McDonald’s, as well as given back pay and compensation for damages. 

“We were called essential workers, but this is the way that they treat the essential workers?” Ruiz asked. 

Companies facing repercussion for their pandemic policies 

Attorneys told Business Insider in April that it would be difficult for workers to win against employers in court if they tried to sue after catching COVID-19 on the job. 

“The biggest hurdle infected employees will face if they seek compensation from an employer will be proving where they contracted the virus,” attorney James Biscone said. “Was it at work? On the way home? On the subway or bus?”

Workers recently told Business Insider’s Catherine LeClair and Áine Cain that they feel as if they have been deserted by organizations like OSHA intended to enforce workplace safety during the pandemic. Republicans have pushed to give businesses a “liability shield” to protect employers from lawsuits related to the coronavirus, as part of the proposed SAFE TO WORK Act. 

Recently, there has been an uptick of litigation and action on the part of health officials. While OSHA issued few COVID-related citations early in the pandemic, the administration has recently fined Amazon and meat-processing giants JBS and Smithfield over safety violations. Reuters reports “take home” lawsuits, filed by people sickened by family members who were infected at work, could cost businesses up to $21 billion, citing risk analytics firm Praedicat. 

Ruiz’s case highlights that pandemic-related lawsuits will not be limited to workers who caught COVID-19 at work. Law firm Fisher Phillips reports that there has been a surge in whistleblower lawsuits due to the pandemic, as employees report safety violations such as a lack of personal protective equipment and social distancing failures. According to the firm, 136 of the 674 federal employment-related lawsuits since March 2020 were related to whistleblower allegations.

This blog originally appeared at Business Insider on October 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Taylor is a correspondent for Business Insider, covering restaurants, food, beverage, and retail. Companies that she covers include McDonald’sStarbucks, and Chick-fil-A. Kate previously covered food and franchises for Entrepreneur. Find her on Twitter at @Kate_H_Taylor.


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Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

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BOISE, IDA­HO—It was rain­ing light­ly June 29 when Geo Eng­ber­son, own­er of the Pie Hole pizze­ria, con­vened an emer­gency staff meet­ing. He had intend­ed a quick con­fer­ence in the park­ing lot behind the restau­rant, known for its steady stream of week­end bar-goers. Giv­en the weath­er, Eng­ber­son fer­ried the hand­ful of work­ers into his trailer. 

Ear­li­er that month, work­ers at the piz­za joint peti­tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor­ried that Pie Hole was pre­pared to replace them, for­mer employ­ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork­ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig­gered a conflict. 

In a record­ing of the trail­er meet­ing obtained by In These Times, Eng­ber­son says, “Kiwi, yes­ter­day you told [the man­ag­er] you wouldn’t train new hires, any scabs. That still how you feel?” 

When Palmer and fel­low work­er Mar­shall Har­ris reaf­firmed they would not train new hires, Eng­ber­son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work­ers have orga­nized a series of pick­ets in front of the restau­rant. Call­ing them­selves the Pie Hole Work­ers Union, they filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board alleg­ing the fir­ing was retal­ia­to­ry and vio­lat­ed their right to par­tic­i­pate in “con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” with­out reprisal. 

Eng­ber­son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har­ris were fired for orga­niz­ing and that the busi­ness planned to replace them. “We got busy, and we need­ed to hire more peo­ple,” Eng­ber­son tells In These Times. He adds, “I treat my employ­ees like fam­i­ly … and I don’t ever hear from them that they’re dis­grun­tled about their wages.” Eng­ber­son also says that, when he used the word “scabs,” he was quot­ing Palmer— not con­firm­ing the new work­ers were, in fact, scabs. 

The Pie Hole work­ers have found sup­port from the Boise chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), which has aid­ed in pick­ets and con­nect­ed them with DSA’s nation­al Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul­ti­ple left-wing labor groups have tak­en on the cause of restau­rant orga­niz­ing. In addi­tion to its Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project, DSA has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE)—a demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file union—to advise work­ers on union dri­ves and work­place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE’s orga­niz­ing, the Left has tak­en a cen­tral role in pan­dem­ic-era organizing.

“We’ve seen a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in work­ers con­tact­ing us about orga­niz­ing from the restau­rant indus­try, and in the food ser­vice [and] hos­pi­tal­i­ty sec­tor more broad­ly,” UE orga­niz­er Mark Mein­ster says. “Work­ers are very con­cerned about the lack of safe­ty pro­tec­tions regard­ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic­i­pate as a result of serv­ing few­er customers.”

This wave of labor activism in hos­pi­tal­i­ty has already ush­ered in wins. In March, a coali­tion of New Orleans ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers cam­paigned to dis­burse reserves from the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter direct­ly into the hands of work­ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro­vide $1 mil­lion in grants to work­ers affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Some restau­rants in Philadel­phia, where hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers have orga­nized to end the sub­min­i­mum wage for servers and bar­tenders, have increased wages dur­ing the pandemic.

But the restau­rant indus­try remains dif­fi­cult to orga­nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor­i­ty, with union den­si­ty in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vice hov­er­ing around 2.1%.

At Augie’s Cof­fee, a chain in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, work­ers demon­strat­ed 70% sup­port for the Augie’s Union (rep­re­sent­ed by UE) and request­ed the com­pa­ny vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their bar­gain­ing unit. The com­pa­ny then shut down oper­a­tions and laid off every­one in the cafés. Now, for­mer work­ers are cam­paign­ing for union recog­ni­tion and to be rehired.

“Peo­ple are so atom­ized, and the job they do is so tem­po­rary,” says Matthew Soliz, a barista orga­niz­ing with Augie’s Union. “I think for peo­ple my age and younger, unions aren’t real­ly a con­cept, right? Like, in talk­ing to my cowork­ers, the most com­mon response is, ‘I don’t real­ly know what that is.’ ”

Giv­en the chal­lenges, restau­rant work­ers are band­ing togeth­er across restau­rants and across cities. In Chica­go, New Orleans, Den­ver and Boise, restau­rant work­ers have formed city­wide sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. On July 24, work­ers around the coun­try marched to demand expand­ed ben­e­fits from unem­ploy­ment insurance.

“The fact that [DSA’s Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project] is grow­ing is evi­dence [that] A, we’re not crazy, and B, we’re not alone, and C, that there is sol­i­dar­i­ty that is grow­ing rapid­ly,” Har­ris says. “Inside of five weeks, I’ve gone from nev­er hav­ing done any of this to attempt­ing to orga­nize oth­er people.”

This article originally appeared at In These Times on September 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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How to Save the Restaurant Workforce From Being Casualties of The Covid-19 Crisis

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As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept through cities across the country, restaurants have been forced to shut down indefinitely—or slashed their workforces and reduced their operations to threadbare delivery and take-out only services. 

Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage, an advocacy group for restaurant workers and other tipped service employees (including Uber and Doordash drivers, manicurists and car wash workers) hopes the economic turmoil might lead to a much-needed reset for the industry. 

One Fair Wage, which grew out of the national labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, envisions a sustainable post-pandemic business model. It starts with dismantling the subminimum wage system, which allows employers to calculate the minimum wage for tipped workers at just a fraction of the normal minimum, as little as $2.13 per hour, leading to rampant wage theft. And with millions of households grappling with food insecurity, One Fair Wage is also piloting the “High Road Kitchens” project—a combination of mutual aid and community-based entrepreneurship, which offers a living wage to all workers and currently works with restaurants in California to feed low-wage workers in their local communities.

In These Times talked to Jayaraman about how the pandemic could change restaurant work over the long term.

MC: How does the pandemic underscore the issues that One Fair Wage has been advocating around for years?

The pandemic put our work on speed because it literally just made our point for us: it showed America why no one should ever have been making less than a minimum wage to begin with. After all, remember that the minimum wage in the United States emerged from the last Great Depression, and at that time tipped workers were excluded [from unemployment benefits and federal safety net programs meant for industrial workers]. Incarcerated workers, gig workers, people with disabilities were excluded. That was supposed to be the moment when people [decided] going forward, no one is going to get less than this minimum. But it wasn’t true for these workers. So with the pandemic, more than 10 million service sector workers have lost their jobs and are having real problems accessing unemployment insurance or are getting unemployment insurance [based] on a total miscalculation of their income, because of the messiness of living off of tips. We’re hearing this from a lot of women who are single mothers. They’re going to apply for unemployment and the state unemployment insurance [office] is telling them [their tipped income] is too low to meet the minimum state threshold to qualify for unemployment insurance.

So tipped workers in America are up against two systems that come from the Great Depression and were built against them. One is the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, which never worked and has been laid bare [by the pandemic] as a completely untenable situation. And two is unemployment. Now that states are reopening and restaurant workers are being forced to go back to work, not only are tipped workers facing the difficult choice between their livelihood and their life. On top of that, we’re facing a world in which tips have gone way down. People tip delivery and takeout [workers] maybe 10% of what they tip typically in a sit-down restaurant. So, all of that has made workers very angry, and we are organizing them and building up towards some really big direct action that’s coming up.

And it’s made employers, at least many independent restaurant owners, open their eyes. We’ve worked with Gov. Newsom to launch a program called High Road Kitchen in California that would provide cash grants to restaurants that commit to higher wage and greater equity going forward. And they take the money now and rehire workers and provide free meals to the community, and paid meals to anyone who can afford to pay for it. You would think all restaurant owners would be saying “don’t raise wages right now, we’re struggling.” But on the contrary, many restaurant owners, at least independent restaurant owners—the chains are not going to move on this—are saying “you know, this is precisely the time to raise wages. This is precisely the time to make changes because we’re all reinventing what restaurants are going to look. We’re having to redo our business models from scratch, we may as well incorporate something that is sustainable for our people, because it’s been made very clear that this sub-minimum wage never worked.”

My point is that all of those workers should get a full minimum wage from their employer in addition to safety protocols, because the tips are going to be so much less reliable going forward. They were never reliable to begin with. But they’re going to be even more insecure and unreliable. 

MC: Overall what do you think the restaurant industry is going to look like, given that there are places that just aren’t going to be able to reopen. Do you think there might be more consolidation in the industry?

This is why we’re really pushing for solutions like High Road Kitchens, which is both about saving small businesses and bringing the industry in the right direction and hiring workers and feeding people all at the same time. 

What I’m thinking about is a program that gets small businesses cash and commits them to higher wages—and helps them change their business models, and then also allows them to do feeding programs and rehire workers. And so it’s a multi-win, and it’s based on the philosophy and idea that if we’re going to be providing relief, let’s shape relief in a way that shapes the future. That’s what we should be doing as a country. If we know that the pandemic has laid bare inequities, then rather than providing blanket relief, especially to these big chains, that relief needs to be contingent on commitments to change.

We have two choices: Either we can go toward a much more horrific future where we force people to go back to work at two dollars an hour and there’s no tips, so they continue at basically Great Depression-era levels of poverty and starvation, plus they’re already in debt due to the last couple of months of not having income. That’s the horrific future. And then I think that the real future we need to fight for is one where we don’t go back until we get One Fair Wage and PPE and safety protocols. I don’t think there’s an in-between. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a historian based in New York City, a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored podcast.


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DC Council overrules constituents, votes to reinstall tipped wage system

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The District of Columbia’s city council took the first step Tuesday to overturn Initiative 77, a measure passed by a 55 percent to 45 percent majority by the Washington voters. If its efforts succeed, as expected, the council will undo the minimum wage protections for tipped workers.

A 2016 living wage law, enacted by the city council, established a series of gradual steps up to a $15 minimum wage for workers — but included a lower $5-an-hour minimum for service workers, so long as their tips brought that total to no less than $15 per hour. Restaurant-workers-rights groups launched a voter initiative to phase out that exemption and, on June 19, 2018, more than 55 percent of those voting on primary day backed the effort. The restaurant industry — and the city council members they have bankrolled — immediately launched an effort to overturn the voters’ will by city council legislation.

On Tuesday afternoon, the city council rejected a proposed compromise and endorsed a full repeal, on an 8 to 5 vote. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has said she will sign the legislation, authored by Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D). Six council Democrats and one independent voted yes on the initial vote; four Democrats and one independent voted no.  District voters have not elected a Republican to the council since 2004.

The council reaffirmed this on an 8 to 5 vote later in the afternoon.  Final final passage is expected later in the October.

Bowser’s official website highlights the District of Columbia’s demand for statehood — it currently has limited “home rule” but the U.S. Congress can overrule any local action. “DC residents seek full democracy for DC since 1982 and today,” it proclaims. “Mayor Muriel Bowser continues the fight to secure full democracy for DC because it is the most appropriate mechanism to grant U.S. citizens, who reside in the District of Columbia, the full rights and privileges of American citizenship.”

But for Bowser and the majority of council members, that full democracy can be overridden when the restaurant industry does not like what the majority decides.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Josh Israel has been senior investigative reporter for ThinkProgress since 2012. Previously, he was a reporter and oversaw money-in-politics reporting at the Center for Public Integrity, was chief researcher for Nick Kotz’s acclaimed 2005 book Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, and was president of the Virginia Partisans Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club.


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