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Chains Like McDonald’s Are Taking Baby Steps to Provide for Restaurant Employees Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Workers’ rights organizations like Fight for $15 and Unite Here are demanding paid time off and employee protections

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An employee serves customers in a Chipotle restaurant
Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

With novel coronavirus (COVID-19) upgraded to pandemic status by the World Health Organization, U.S. food service workers are doubling down on the fight for paid sick leave, a necessity should they get ill and require quarantine. Fight for $15, an advocacy group made up largely of hospitality workers, as well as food service unions Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United and Unite Here are demanding that corporate restaurant groups adapt paid sick leave policies immediately. And some major chains are starting to respond.

On Tuesday, Fight for $15 called out McDonald’s specifically, stating, “We demand that McDonald’s provide PAID sick leave to all workers who wear the McDonald’s uniform—in both corporate and franchised stores— in the event that they or their immediate family members show symptoms of possible COVID-19 infection.” The statement goes on to demand ongoing pay should an employee be quarantined, and that McDonald’s pay for COVID-19 testing and time off for parents with virus-related child emergencies.

McDonald’s provided Eater with a response to Fight For $15’s statement. “The health and wellbeing of our people, our customers and our communities is our highest priority and drives our decision making,” said a McDonald’s Corporation spokesperson. “As we proactively monitor the impact of the coronavirus, we are continuously evaluating our policies to provide flexibility and reasonable accommodations. Our people are the heart and soul of the McDonald’s family and, of course, we will support them through this unique circumstance.” McDonald’s also announced it will provide up to 14 days of paid sick leave for quarantined employees of its corporate owned stores.

Many McDonald’s restaurants — along with other fast food chains — are franchised, which provides an easy excuse for corporations to not issue blanket sick leave policies. McDonald’s sets policies for corporate owned stores, and while corporate may recommend said policies to franchised locations, franchisees are still considered independent business owners. As such, according to McDonald’s, they maintain the right to enact their own rules and regulations.

Dunkin’, which also operates as a franchise, used McDonald’s reasoning that the corporate wing is ultimately not in control of paid sick leave. In a statement to Eater, Dunkin’ said that while it’s taking precautions, “Dunkin’ restaurants are independently owned and operated by individual franchisees who are responsible for making their own business decisions such as the benefits they offer their employees, including sick leave.”

UNITE HERE, meanwhile, is asking Congress to provide workers with paid sick leave. “Not everyone can afford to take time off when they’re sick. That’s why there is no better moment to enact national policy on paid sick time. Our national leaders must act now to protect workers and the general public today and into the future,” says a Unite Here statement, which also notes that the group is “formulating proposals for what steps should be taken if workers become sick or their workplaces are closed temporarily, including job security measures and paid time off.” Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked an emergency paid sick leave bill.

Some restaurants have already taken steps to provide better benefits to employees. On Monday, Darden restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille and other chains, announced it would be providing all hourly employees with up to seven paid sick days. In an email to its members, Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United asked that they “call on all corporate-owned restaurant chains, including Dine Brands (Applebee’s and IHOP), Bloomin’ (Outback Steakhouse), Brinker (Chili’s), Cracker Barrel, and Denny’s, to immediately follow suit.” ROC United also put out a statement, with anecdotes from members about what it’s like to work while sick. “Like millions of restaurant workers across the country, this is the kind of sacrifice I have to make because ‘no work’ means ‘no pay’ for me,” said bartender Portia Green. “For now, I could only pop a vitamin C, hoping that it would help prevent a disease.”

Restaurant workers are also willing to protest for their demands. On Monday, employees at a Chipotle in the Bronx in New York walked out and picketed over the right to take sick leave. Workers claim Chipotle isn’t adhering to state sick leave laws or its own policies, with one employee saying he was written up for calling in sick, even though he was suffering from flu-like symptoms.

As novel coronavirus spreads, many chain restaurants will likely be forced to change their paid sick leave policies, whether due to pressure from employees or worried customers. But without permanent paid sick leave requirements from the government, these policies will likely revert once the threat of the outbreak is over. And paid sick leave shouldn’t just exist in a crisis.